Farmer John Peterson sees the drama in farming, and director Taggart Siegel sees the drama in Farmer John, but The Real Dirt on Farmer John raises as many questions as it answers. The multi-generational Peterson farm landed in John's hands during the farming bust of the '80s and the guilt-ridden Peterson describes, in self-written narration, his course away from the land and back to it.
John's path includes bookended stints as host to communal farming, the struggles of organic farming, coping with the mortality of parents, and self-exploration through journaling, playwriting, and filmmaking. Each topic, in and of itself, holds interest, but the filmmaker is Jack of all John's trades and master of none. The swiss-cheese storytelling grows even more obscure when we learn John's triumphant return as organic farmer owes a great deal to characters who remain mostly off-screen.
Siegel, who's been making films with Peterson for years, remains a ghost in the narrative of this strangely conspiratorial documentary. Though the film is spiced up with strange images like Peterson farming in a feather boa, a naked woman following his plow, it's never clear what motivates the dress-up games: are they a regular occurrence or a fun-loving art prank for the camera? Indeed, too much of this self-congratulatory one-man-show in the guise of a documentary remains real...muddy.