Grit and grace under fire TV's new season: In this little house on the prairie, most of the burden of keeping the farm and themselves together falls to 'The Farmer's Wife.'

September 21, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Six and a half hours of documentary television might seem like an impossibly large commitment of time in this week of new network series and the videotape of President Clinton's testimony before a grand jury. But I promise that if you spend it watching "The Farmer's Wife" on PBS starting tonight, it will be one of the most rewarding viewing experiences of your life.

I know that's a big claim, but this three-night saga of a young Nebraska couple's struggle to save their farm, their marriage, their dreams and their children's futures warrants it. Filmmakers like Ken Burns and Bill Moyers talk a lot about "the American character," but David Sutherland actually shows it to us in "The Farmer's Wife."

He finds it in a tiny, paint-flecked farmhouse out on the Great Plains. He photographs it and holds the image up to the light in such a way that it can't help but inspire.

And, boy, do we need it now. The character of these "common folk" Americans is the perfect antidote for the lack of it on the part of some of their elected representatives in Washington. I swear, watching parts of the film saved me from despair on several nights last week after long, depressing days spent with television coverage of President Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Kenneth Starr and Congress.

"The Farmer's Wife" is the story of Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter and their three young daughters, who live on a small-scale grain and cattle farm near Lawrence, Neb. (population 350). They farm 1,100 acres of rented ground. Darrel grew up a few miles outside of Lawrence on his father's farm. Juanita is what the locals call a "city girl," because she grew up in town, the daughter of the superintendent of schools.

They married 10 years ago when Darrel was 23 and she was 17. The seeds of marital conflict were sown from the start. Juanita's parents did not want her to marry at 17 and, certainly, not to a farm boy. Her parents had sent one of her brothers to Harvard and a sister to Wellesley. They offered to pay for braces to fix her teeth if she would stay in school and not marry Darrel. But marry she did.

The film starts in the spring of 1995 during an especially difficult time for the family. The survival of their farm hangs on the tenuous thread of approval of a government loan. They are on the edge, facing the loss of much of what they hold dear: farm, possessions, marriage and self-respect.

In 1991, after much bad luck with weather, some poor business moves and slim harvests, the bank had sent the Buschkoetters a letter saying it was ready to liquidate the farm. The real struggle started then with Juanita taking a job as a maid cleaning homes in the area and Darrel working days in a shop in Lawrence hauling and cutting iron. He came home at night after eight to 10 hours at that back-aching labor to work the farm, planting and harvesting by the headlights on his tractor and combine.

By '95, she seems on the verge of clinical depression, and he seems physically and emotionally exhausted. Even with their off-the-farm jobs, after they make their monthly payments to their creditors to keep the farm going, they have as little as $10 a month for food.

Juanita's trip to apply for food stamps almost breaks her spirit. It will break your heart and make you wonder how they will possibly go on.

Sutherland said he didn't go looking for "heroes," but he found two in Darrel and Juanita. One of his many great accomplishments as director is the way he moves from the intensely personal to the heroic in telling their story.

Sutherland and his camera crew spent three years with the Buschkoetters compiling some 200 hours of film. The level of intimacy he achieved is stunning. The camera literally follows Juanita and Darrel to bed on a couple of occasions, with the microphones the couple wears capturing their words as they lay in each others arms. It's them against the world.

But then Sutherland cuts from the couple asleep in their beds to a shot outside in the barnyard looking at the solitary, darkened, weather-beaten, Buschkoetter home. Slowly, the camera pulls back, back, back, until this frail little house on the prairie is just a speck in the vast night of the Great Plains, and Darrel and Juanita are visually linked to the pioneers and homesteaders who lived in sod huts and hardscrabble cabins as they fought impossible odds to settle the American frontier.

In the end, as the title suggests, this is more Juanita's story than Darrel's. Though the changes in Darrel are profound by film's end, it is Juanita who realizes she is the only one who can save the marriage, farm and family. Much of the poetry of the film is found in her day-to-day determination, her grit and grace and growth in the face of harsh economic forces, bad government policy and just plain mean people.

The pillow talk, the intimate details of the marriage, the dramatic struggles and the emphasis on the feminine, might lead some to think "The Farmer's Wife" is the documentary as soap opera. You could call it that if you want, if you are also willing to call Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes from a Marriage" soap opera.

I would call it landmark television, but the phrase has been ground to sawdust by critics using it to describe everything from the unisex bathroom on "Ally McBeal" to Steve Urkel's depiction of a geek on "Family Matters."

"The Farmer's Wife" is about as good a documentary as has ever been made for television. It is documentary as social conscience and window on the American soul.

I pray it doesn't get lost in the frenzy tonight over another video window -- this one from Washington -- on a darker region of the soul.


What: "The Farmer's Wife"

Where: PBS and MPT (Channels 22 and 67)

When: 9 to 11 tonight and tomorrow night; 9 p.m. to 11: 30 p.m. Wednesday

Pub Date: 9/21/98

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