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Sundance: The softer side of farming in ‘The Moo Man’

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Steven Hook, a maverick dairy farmer, and his 55 unruly cows, are the stars of "The Moo Man," one of the films in Sundance's World Cinema Documentary Competition. Courtesy Sundance Film Festival

By Kathy Stephenson

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Jan 22 2013 11:01PM
Updated Jan 24, 2013 01:02PM

From "Food, Inc." to "Fast Food Nation," there have been several documentaries in recent years that expose what’s wrong with industrialized farming.

In "The Moo Man," co-directors Andy Heathcote and Heike Bachelier go a different direction, showing a "softer side" of food production.

Competing in the Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Documentary category, "The Moo Man" follows Steven Hook, a maverick dairy farmer, and his 55 unruly cows. Hook ekes out a living on a small dairy farm in the marshes of Southern England.

Unlike many farmers, Hook has turned its back on large, cost-cutting dairies and supermarkets. Instead, he produces organic raw milk on a small scale, selling directly to customers at farmers markets and offering a home-delivery service. It seems like an idyllic life, until Ida, the queen of the herd, becomes ill.

Filmmakers Heathcote and Bachelier, who are customers of Hook’s dairy, say they are so passionate about the farm and its animals that they invested nearly four years making the film.

What inspired you to make this film?

Heathcote • Steve delivers milk to our door, and each bottle has pictures of his cows. When we finally went to the farm, we were blown away by the way he does things. We walked away and said "We’ve got to make this into a film." Through Steve and his cows, we could show how food could be produced in an environmentally sustainable way.

Did you think it would take four years?

Heathcote • In the film production business, you like to get things finished in a year. But we got a bit too passionate about it, really. We loved being on the farm and developed close relationship with cows. It really changed our perspective about what farming is about. I think people take farm animals for granted. With supermarkets, people have lost that direct connection with their food.

How did you come up with the film name?

Heathcote • The cows didn’t always behave and Steven would always say "Come on you great big moo." And we thought: He’s the "moo man."

Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper told Filmmaker Magazine that "The Moo Man" was a personal favorite. How did that make you feel?

Heathcote • Wow! Absolutely astonishing. It really is a touching film. What people will find most surprising is how much it gets you in the heart. People don’t expect that about a man and his animals, the connections they have. People who watch the film will find there is laughter and tears. You can’t ask for more, really.

What do you hope the audience learns from watching the film?

Heathcote • I hope people have a little bit of respect for where their food comes from and make the effort to look for local suppliers. Empower yourself to make a difference.

Hook • I hope people really understand a dairy cow, what it goes through and what wonderful animals they are. And how important it is to support small family farms. They are the backbone of any rural economy.

Bachelier • One of the things I wanted to stress was that small farms are dying as our food production gets more industrialized. I hope the film makes people more aware of this but also that the government becomes more aware. We need support from government and an understanding of what’s going on.

In recent years there have been many food industry movies? How is this one different?

Heathcote • There is a certain amount of documentaries that show the food world is bad. Ours shows this is a world that is wonderful and why can’t more places be like this? It has its ups and down, but what comes across is the relationship between man and animal.

Your first documentary, "The Lost World of Mr. Hardy," was about a family fishing tackle business. What draws you to these personal, family stories?

Heathcote • I’m attracted to people who do things because they are passionate about it, rather than because it makes the most money.

Steven, what did you think when Andy and Heike asked to film you and your farm?

Hook • We had nothing to hide, it wasn’t going to be an expose. The way we farm, the animals are individuals, not units of production. They are dairy cows and dignified animals, and you have to handle them a little bit different. I want my cows to be happy when they see me in the morning. I want to have a good day at work with them, that’s why I talk to the cows and treat them very gently. Each one has a personality. You get hooked on the cows.

Many people in America are skeptical of raw milk. Do you think the film will help calm those fears?

Hook • Raw milk is a wonder food; all of our milk is unpasteurized, so is the butter and cream. There are 2,000 customers that get our milk and the feedback is fantastic. People buy for all sort of reasons. When they buy from us, they are buying a high-quality product and buying into the way we farm. They really feel a part of what we do.

Bachelier • For me, being able to purchase from Steven’s farm is fantastic. I trust Stephen and I know that they are looking after the quality. I have no problem drinking it. I trust it much more than going to a supermarket and buying it off the shelf.

kathys@sltrib.com

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