‘Good Things Await’: SXSW Review
A farmer faces challenges to his lovingly honed biodynamic methods in a documentary from Denmark
When the California Milk Advisory Board launched its “Happy Cows” ad campaign, it drew heat from activists for a misleadingly idyllic depiction of a factory-farming reality. In the case of the Danish farm at the center of the eloquently lensed documentary Good Things Await (Så meget godt i vente), such a slogan would amount to truth in advertising.
Anyone interested in the Slow Food movement and organic farming — biodynamic agriculture in particular — will find inspiration in director Phie Ambo’s up-close look at harmonious husbandry. But her film is also a story of dispiriting conflict, as the art and soul of one man’s life’s work runs smack up against a wall of inflexible bureaucracy. European audiences would be a more natural fit for the doc, which took its stateside bow at SXSW, but given the growing interest in traditional methods of food production, specialized and cable slots could expand its viewership beyond the Continent.
Like the once-dominant Danish Red cattle he breeds, Niels Stokholm, white-bearded and usually clad in green overalls, is among the last of his kind. Nearing 80, he still runs Thorshojgaard, the farm he’s been running since 1975 using biodynamics, a method developed nearly a century ago by Rudolf Steiner (whose philosophy also gave rise to Waldorf schools). The vérité film doesn’t concern itself with such historical background; Ambo assumes a basic knowledge of biodynamics and, like Niels and his wife, Rita, is more interested in day-to-day dynamics. And the director is sometimes called into action. “Can you put the camera down and help?” Niels asks as he and Rita tend to a calf's breech birth.
The Stokholms’ produce, meat and cheese shows up on the menus of such foodie destinations as Copenhagen’s acclaimed Noma. One devoted customer, chef Jesper Moller, takes a practical interest in the farm when, halfway through the doc, a crisis arises in the form of government inspectors who could shut down the enterprise.
Stokholm finds himself a “repeat offender,” targeted by EU regulations for organic quality and animal welfare. The black-and-white rules pain him not just for their potential effect on his work, but for their utter lack of connection to the rhythms of nature. Stokholm’s profound understanding of the farm’s flora and fauna involves more than biology, and his philosophy goes far deeper than eschewing the use of chemicals. Though his cosmos talk might try the patience of some viewers, when he speaks of the “group self” of the cattle, the spiritual force of the earth and the stars’ influence on plants, every word is grounded in direct experience.
Through the power of her footage, Ambo contrasts Stokholm’s 40-year odyssey with far less rooted attachments to fashionable “sustainability.” The clash between the two grows increasingly troubling. But the Stokholms are not alone in their determination to keep the farm going. They weigh offers of emotional and financial support, and the documentary ends on a note of compromise that’s both hopeful and wary.
The widescreen camerawork by the director and Maggie Olkuskaisin sync with the seasons and with Stokholm’s “perfect spiritual light-bulb moments” — in macro views of earthworms, spiders and dewdrops as well as long shots of the contented cattle. Still, Stokholm is no poster child for those of a rigidly vegetarian persuasion. When it’s time to slaughter an animal for meat, Ambo doesn’t film the act itself, instead focusing on the moments before and after: Stokholm’s calming words of gratitude, the image of flowing blood, lyrical and sobering.
The choral score by Johann Johannsson (The Theory of Everything), performed by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices, feels both traditional and avant-garde. It’s an apt expression of the film’s charged themes, and of one visionary farmer’s deeply felt sense of his place in the universe.
Production companies: Danish Documentary Production
Director: Phie Ambo
Producer: Malene Flindt Pedersen
Directors of photography: Phie Ambo, Maggie Olkuska
Editor: Theis Schmidt
Composer: Johann Johannsson
No rating, 96 minutes