'On Her Own': Hot Docs Review

On Her Own Still - H 2015
Nancy Prebilich

On Her Own Still - H 2015

Farm life and death

Morgan Schmidt-Feng's documentary looks at a California farm facing foreclosure

Family and farm life on a California ranch are chronicled for five increasingly difficult years in On Her Own, from nonfiction writer-director Morgan Schmidt-Feng. Filmed between 2009, just after the recession hit, and 2014, this documentary might have a soothingly pastoral sense of pacing, a somewhat rustic-sounding score and some bucolic sights, but the harsh contemporary realities facing someone trying to simply survive on a farm, let alone make a decent living, come through loud and clear. After a Slamdance bow and international premiere at Hot Docs, this is ready for an international festival tour as well as some TV sales.

The "her" of the title is presumably Nancy Prebilich, though for at least the first half of the film, her parents, her sister Cindy, her twin nephews and her niece, Samantha, are almost just as much part of the fabric of the film. Their ranch in Bodega, Calif., which has been in the family for about a century, produces different kinds of meat, though there’s a hint it previously was a dairy farm, already suggesting that the Prebilich clan has had to make adjustments just to keep its head above water.

In the early going, Schmidt-Feng simply follows Nancy around as she explains the different tasks that need to be done and who takes care of what in the family, with even her elderly parents and the preteen kids pitching in, while Cindy mostly seems to take care of her kids.

“It’s a good thing my dad went to Vietnam, because he’s the only one with healthcare,” Nancy explains in what’s a frequently perceptive and eerily prescient voice-over that occasionally supplements the images (it’s not clear when these audio-only interviews exactly took place). Nancy counts on the physical strength of her father and years of experience and knowledge of both her parents to keep the ranch running but before the year’s out, Schmidt-Feng and editor Nicholas Carter cut to footage of his funeral. It’s a blunt but effective tactic, perfectly illustrating that “dealing with mortality is a daily thing,” at a farm, as Nancy suggested earlier, even if she was more specifically referring to dead piglets or chickens.

Death is indeed a recurring topic, which is not all that strange in a place that produces meat and in a film that explores what’s rapidly becoming a dying way of life. When Samantha asks her aunt where Ginger, one of the pigs, has gone, Nancy rather straightforwardly replies: “Ginger is sausaged, sold and gone. Ginger is money in the bank. We all have a purpose”. Like Carter’s cutting, Nancy’s farming maxims are crude but true to life and effective, suggesting something of the rough beauty of farming but especially its toughness.

After her father’s death, Nancy’s mother dies "of a broken heart," says Nancy, and Cindy and herself "were thrust into a partnership we [...] had no instructions for". It's 2011 at this point in the film, and the narrative starts to develop some dramatic tension as Cindy would prefer to sell the farm and move to Mississippi with her family, while Nancy, who’s pretty much married to her job and the land, would prefer to keep the family legacy alive. In what seems like a bad omen, the first month they couldn't pay the mortgage was the month their mother died.

Unfortunately, the film's second part is also where Schmidt-Feng starts to somewhat neglect Cindy’s side of the story, turning her into something of an unseen antagonist ­(it seems perfectly reasonable for her to ask what the point of keeping the farm and the family legacy alive is if it leads to frayed relationships).

The film only hints at a wider crisis in U.S. farming in general, thus making it a little frustrating that there is a part of the Prebiliches’ private lives that is deliberately left off-screen in this intimate film, with the director ignoring the particulars of what happened or led to certain decisions in favor of slightly more impressionistic touches. Examples of the latter include a shot -- the crisp cinematography was handled by the director -- of Nancy walking around the place where the family farmstead once stood, too dazed to be really emotional. 

At least, the film’s ending offers some hope for Nancy’s future, even if she’s had to substitute her real family for neighbors, their kids and -- of course -- some animals.

Production companies: Filmsight Productions

Writer-Director: Morgan Schmidt-Feng

Producers: Morgan Schmidt-Feng, Chris Brown

Executive producers: Heather Feng-Yanu, Albert Chan

Director of photography: Morgan Schmidt-Feng

Editor: Nicholas Carter

Music: Quincy Griffin


No rating, 80 minutes