Sunday, August 30, 2009

"Knee Deep" and gawking

Has anybody seen a documentary called "Knee Deep"? It's about a farmer up in Maine who shoots his estranged mother after the mother (who had left the family farm years before but had technically inherited it since she and the father never divorced) sells the farm to a developer out from underneath him. The mother lives and refuses to testify against her son, but he never sees any of the money.

The neighbors seem to think the shooting was largely justified*, and the film crew talks to a lot of them. It's interesting stuff.

At the same time, it bothers me in that there are moments when it seems to gawk at the people on camera because, well, they sound like a bunch of weird rednecks. The kind of connection to the land that causes shootings for that reason is very alien to the average middle class person and the film gives lots of time and space for some of the seemingly bizarre things that people are saying to sink in.

It doesn't directly make fun of them, but in some ways it is lke watching a documentary on a strange species of person.

Anyway, seen it? Thoughts?


*the farmer had dropped out of school in the sixth grade to work on the farm and nobody seemed to have a problem with that, so this was a VERY rural community. And FWIW, around the time the kid dropped out of school to work, the mother went to nursing school and left the father as soon as she got her degree, so she was pretty awful in her way.


DairyStateDad said...

Haven't seen "Knee Deep" but the gawking camera in documentary film is one I'm familiar with. One sees this in a lot of different films... Michael Moore sometimes, Fred Wiseman. I think even some of Errol Morris's work shows this sometimes. And while I never really thought about it before, I think you raise an important question about whether it might deprive some people of their dignity, and whether that's wrong in some way.

On the mother leaving the father. Absent more information I'm not sure that makes her categorically "pretty awful."

Chalicechick said...

The leaving doesn't alone, but that she:

A. Went back to school to become a nurse just as her approximately 11 year old kid was dropping out of school to work on the farm.

B. Left as soon as she got the degree

Makes her suck, IMHO. If she kept working on the farm herself rather than letting the kid drop out of school, then started training to be a nurse when he graduated, I would have no beef with her.

As it was, she let him drop out likely knowing that meant he would have no chance of a real life other than farming, then took away his chance at that by selling the farm.

I'm sticking with "awful."


PG said...

Yes, the gawking documentary camera is pretty common. I first noticed it in "hands on a hard body," which is set near where I grew up.

kimc said...

I'm with DairyStateDad -- It sounds awful on the surface, but we don't know what else was going on. selling the farm out from under the son was pretty mean --I can't think of an extenuating circumstance on that one, but we don't know....
i didn't see the film and was just going on what you wrote here.

hafidha sofia said...

I haven't seen that documentary, but I've added it to my Instant Queue at netflix.

ogre said...

Haven't seen it. But based on the description, I think I'd feel similarly.

There's a lot of gawking done in much (most?) documentary. I'm not really at ease with it... it feels like it observes without 'seeing'. It's like a novel in which the characters act but their humanness and motivation remains opaque.

And the family dynamic you describe sounds... well... awful. The fact that the mother refuses to testify says most of it to me--she knew at some level that she'd not only abandoned the child, but then screwed him out of the only life he'd gotten fit for.

mel said...

I've seen it. I live in Maine, and I'm pretty sure it aired on PBS (Independent Lens) awhile back.

I think you make a good point about the "gawking" phenomenon. It sort of came off that way to us (we live in an urban area in southern Maine), though I'm not sure it would play that way to farming families in rural areas. Josh was certainly portrayed sympathetically, the mother much less so, though I wouldn't call her "awful"--in some way, she was just doing what she needed to do when she went back to nursing school. Though I can't imagine letting a kid drop out of school in the 6th grade! Selling the farm out from under him, though, when she hadn't even been living there or working the farm, must have seemed the ultimate betrayal to her son. Not that it justifies attempted murder.

One thing this film drove home for me was how hard farming is, and how it's more than a job--it's an avocation, a lifestyle. Which means there's so much more tied up in it than dollars and cents (which is how the mother seemed to see it).