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'A Life on the Farm' documentary is 'a testament to the power of amateur filmmaking'

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Sonderbar Pictures
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Filmmaker Oscar Harding’s family found a VHS tape from his grandfather's neighbor, Charles Carson. The tape is described as “'Monty Python' meets 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,'” and while it can be a bit disturbing, “A Life on the Farm” turns into a witty and poignant story about life, death and the power of amateur filmmaking.

We’re a week into the Milwaukee Film Festival, and if you’re a fan of documentaries that feature found footage and border on bizarre, A Life on the Farm could be for you.

When filmmaker Oscar Harding’s grandfather passed away in rural England in 2006, his family found a VHS tape from their neighbor, Charles Carson. The tape is described as “Monty Python meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and while it can be a bit disturbing, A Life on the Farm turns into a witty and poignant story about life, death and the power of amateur filmmaking.

"This movie is all about his own home movies, essentially a lot of variations on the same two-hour feature-length home movie called Life on the Farm," explains Harding. "So, it's our investigation of Charles' life before he started making these video tapes and the extraordinary legacy he left behind."

Harding says that Charles would make variations of his film and insert footage he had shot of each villager for their own copy. The tape that was in Harding's family included footage of his grandmother that he had never met, who was the district nurse. "I felt like I owed Charles a debt. It's the only record of my grandmother and I wouldn't of have that without what he did,"he says.

Harding says that his family actually lost the tape years after finding it, and his father had turned it off half way through when Harding watched it as a 10 year old. "There were images within that film that had stuck with me and I had always wondered what was on the other half of that tape," he recalls.

Around 2018, he found out an aunt still had a copy and after watching Charles' complete tape, Harding knew he had to find out more. What started off as a short film project turned into a documentary.

"To dedicate four years of your life to an endeavor like that across multiple different continents, you wouldn't do it unless you had this admiration for the man's work and a genuine desire to share his story with the world," he says.

As Harding got to know Charles through this tape and research of his life in rural England, he learned that Charles was fiercely intelligent, an inventor, academic and a showman. "But what I think stands out is an incredibly creative man with a wonderful sense of humor who is incredibly caring and affectionate, and kindly considerate," he says.

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Sonderbar Pictures
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"A Life on the Farm" producer & director Oscar Harding visits Charles Carson's home of Coombe End Farm in rural Somerset, England.

"I think the film is absolutely a testament to the power of amateur filmmaking," Harding adds.

Harding says the film has gained fans far outside of the English farm where Charles filmed, especially in American found footage communities. In fact, a clip of Life on the Farm won clip of the year in 2019 in a Milwaukee found footage festival.

"I knew it'd be a while before I could get back to shoot [due to COVID-19], so rather than just hold production I thought surely it'd be great to talk to people out here where found footage is more of this subculture and more of a movement," he explains.

Harding says part of creating this documentary included learning about death positivity, and how Charles was a pioneer of this concept far ahead of his time.

"We judge this man and his content until we then understand that actually, he's a lot more enlightened than a lot of our audience, myself included and the filmmakers initially were before going on this journey," he notes.

Outside of showing audiences the "endlessly inventive" filmmaking of Charles Carson, Harding says his main goal of the documentary is to honor his legacy and have audiences laugh with Charles by the end of the film.

"Charles wanted an audience for his work, and I'd like to think we have helped to facilitate that," he says.

You can see "A Life on the Farm" this Saturday April 30 at 9:30 p.m. at the Oriental Theater as a part of the Milwaukee Film Festival. The film is also available to watch virtually through May 5.

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