'Life on the Farm' documentary debuts at Milwaukee Film Festival

Amber Burke
Wisconsin State Farmer

A new feature-length film focusing on farm life in rural England will make its International debut at the Milwaukee Film Festival on Sundays, April 24 and 30.

The documentary "Life on the Farm," directed by Milwaukee resident Oscar Harding and produced by Sonderbar Pictures, delves into the world of Charles Carson, a retired agricultural engineering professor who returns to his home in rural Somerset, England, to care for his ailing parents and run the family farm.

As pressures of isolation, caregiving and grief bore down on Carson, he turned to photography and filmmaking for an outlet. He captured the unconventional realities of farm life, including a cat funeral, skeletons riding tractors and concerts with his own homemade instruments.

Charles Carson with his film equipment while shooting content for 'Life on the Farm'

Harding said Carson's eccentric work was recognized in national competitions and became a staple in his local community as he distributed his works to neighbors (sometimes against their will).

One such neighbor was director Harding’s grandfather. Upon his grandfather's death, Harding discovered among his possessions the original full-length video Carson had created called "Life on the Farm."

Harding was fascinated by the film's humor, creativity and uniqueness. This led him to explore the quirky neighbor and his approach to rural life. 

"It was the most extraordinary content I'd ever seen," Harding said. "It really piqued my (and my production partners') interest. We started doing some investigating into Charles' life through those who knew him best and began sharing some of his content on the internet. It really started gaining a cult-like following online, which is something that he always had wanted — a larger audience."

Oscar Harding, Film Director

As the old man's work gained in popularity, Harding decided to bring Carson's life and work to the big screen. The 75-minute documentary — Harding's directorial debut — examines Carson’s feature-length film, his other creative pursuits and the farmer/showman himself.

Harding said that one of the intended themes for the movie was capturing the "old-school" farming concepts in the United Kingdom, now dying out due to newer technologies. Harding added, "We also have a psychologist in the film that specializes in rural mental health. We learned a lot about the unique pressures of trying to keep the family farm afloat while also caring for family members."

"The psychologist explains how all of these stresses can take a toll on mental health, so Charles found a creative outlet in filmmaking and cinematography," Harding said. "He was making films because he enjoyed it and wanted to share that passion with community members that he knew and loved. He had great ambition, but not the technology and resources behind him that filmmakers do today. I hope 'A Life on the Farm' is inspiring to other amateur filmmakers that are doing it because they love it."

According to Harding, the documentary took over three years to produce. Half of the movie was produced in the United States and the other half in the United Kingdom. A considerable amount of footage was shot in Milwaukee and the surrounding area — home to the editor and many crew members  — as well as Tomahawk, Wisconsin. Other shooting locations include Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Los Angeles and New York.

"I admire the humor and humanity in his home movies," said Harding. "You learn to laugh with him and appreciate his artwork."

A still shot of Charles Carson from 'Life on the Farm'

The director hopes viewers can connect Charles' eccentricities to someone they might know in their own community.

"At first glance, he's a rather odd character you might find in any small town," Harding said. "However, he had spent 30 years teaching at Kirkley Hall in northern England, one of the most prestigious agricultural institutes in the UK. He was simply creating this quirky content out of frustration over his isolation."

Harding said the entire team is honored that the film is debuting in Milwaukee, the city he's called home for years.

Show times are at 9:30 a.m. April 24 at the Times Cinema in Wauwatosa and 9:30 a.m. April 30 at the Oriental Theatre (Lubar Cinema) in Milwaukee. There will also be a post screening question-and-answer session with the director. For more information or to purchase tickets,  visit mkefilm.org/events/a-life-on-the-farm.