Rudd Simmons’s documentary The First Season, about a Sharon Springs-based family who quit the corporate world to run a dairy farm, is being released today (Thursday) by Cinedigm Entertainment, which has partnered with Slamdance, where the movie premiered early last year, to offer digital streaming on all of the major video-on-demand platforms, including Amazon, Playstation, Xbox, and iTunes.
It’s an inspiring piece of work, even if the subject isn’t necessarily uplifting. What comes across is the dedication needed to pursue backbreaking work in a financially unfavorable climate, where the corporate race to provide the cheapest possible food has compromised the lives of those who’d offer the real thing.
Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh bought an old dairy farm in 2007, and Simmons joined them shortly thereafter to start work on his movie. “It was a personal sacrifice for us,” says Paul. “Rudd was here essentially for two years, living our lives. But—and I know this sounds clichéd—if it helps one farmer, it’s worth it. And we’ve accomplished our goal. And I think Rudd accomplished his goal, because this movie is a wonderful piece of art.”
Simmons, who produced the first season of Boardwalk Empire, has worked as a producer with such directors as Jim Jarmusch, Stephen Frears and Wes Anderson, but approached this, his first directorial effort, more in the style of the Maysles brothers, whose work includes Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens and Salesman. The First Season is spare and unobtrusive, letting the farmers and the look of the fields tell the story.
It’s a story of struggle, as the inexperienced Van Amburghs confront not only the work needed to keep the business going and the animals alive but also the constant financial demands that inexorably drain everything they brought into it. (Although the movie leaves them in terrible financial straits, they have since begun to turn a small profit.)
The documentary has had showings at key locations throughout the area, says Phyllis, “including the Chatham Co-op, Mohawk Harvest and Honest Weight, and I think [this has] helped pump up the local food-small farmers movement. People want to know their farmers and where their food is coming from. It’s so nice to hear someone look at me and say, ‘Oh! There’s one of our farmers!’”
Adds Paul: “At any of the showings we’ve done, there have been three or four farmers there, getting teary-eyed at the end, because they understand how humbling it is to do this job, to work so hard and have nothing left at the end of it.”
But he sees a backlash growing among those who should be most sympathetic to what he and his family are doing. “I heard an NPR commentator the other day treat the issue of local food as if it had become too old hat to discuss any more, and I think there’s been a cynicism that’s crept into the discussion, so that some people are saying, ‘OK, that’s nice, now can you get out of the way?’”
Even if the stern reality of small-family farming, well portrayed in The First Season, is something the dairy-consuming public doesn’t wish to confront, Phyllis adds an optimistic thought. “I believe we’ve given a lot of momentum to other farmers and to consumers,” she says, “and not just in the Capital Region. We hear very positive reactions to our movie from all over the country.”