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Moving Documentary about American Farmers screens at the Spring 2024 New Jersey Film Festival on Saturday, January 27!


By Al Nigrin

originally published: 01/24/2024

Moving Documentary about American Farmers screens at the Spring 2024 New Jersey Film Festival on Saturday, January 27!

​​​​​​Muckville examines the ongoing mental health and suicide epidemic on American farms through the eyes of a 4th-generation onion farmer in New York’s Black Dirt region. Director Jeff Mertz responded to my questions about his important film Muckville via email. Here is my interview with him:

Nigrin: Your moving documentary Muckville examines the ongoing mental health epidemic on American farms through the eyes of a 4th-generation onion farmer in New York’s Black Dirt region. What made you want to make this film?

Mertz: Since moving to the Hudson Valley in 2020, I've done a few short film commissions highlighting regional agriculture on the behalf of local nonprofits. One of those focused on the story of a dairy farmer in Columbia County and how the life experience gained from farming guided him and the farm while grieving the loss of one of their farmhands who had committed suicide. I started doing research on the subject of farmer suicide, and while I found a couple newspaper articles and a redacted CDC report on the subject, there wasn't a lot out there. I've discovered a deep respect and admiration for farmers through my nonprofit work, so I felt a responsibility to tell a story that highlighted the issue in a comprehensive but down-to-earth way.

Nigrin: How did you meet the Pawelskis which are the primary farmers that you focus on?


Mertz: I've always found nonprofits a great asset for gaining access to subjects, since they've usually already built relationships with people affected by the cause they've been built to address. My research led me to NY FarmNet, a nonprofit whose stats are quoted at the end of the film, and one of the few in the Northeast that seem to be tackling this issue. I reached out to them, shared my intention to make a film on farmer suicide, and they identified the Pawelskis as a good fit. A few weeks later I had a call with Chris and just went from there. A lot of farmers don't want to discuss this sort of thing (and are skeptical of outsiders in general), so I really lucked out that Chris was open and enthusiastic about collaborating from the start.

Nigrin: Was it difficult finding the archival footage of the Black Dirt region that you use in your film?


Mertz: Surprisingly, no! Chris maintains a blog about life on his farm, muckville.com (hence the title), where he's meticulously archived any audiovisual materials related to the farm and his family. (He actually has a graduate degree in media studies, which is where I imagine that instinct comes from in part.) The challenge was actually sifting through all the materials, identifying family members and conforming aspect ratios / resolutions to fit the footage I had shot. Again, I lucked out; I don't think I could have told the complete story without his archival. Digitize your home movies, folks!

Nigrin: Your film is beautifully shot and well produced but also a heavy watch. What has the response been to your film by audiences so far?

Mertz: Thanks, I did it virtually all myself! It's screened in a handful of places, all with their own unique audiences, and has even been used in training sessions for some rural health orgs. The overwhelming response I've gotten so far has been deep gratitude – from other farmers, filmmakers, audiences. It's an issue a lot of folks aren't aware of, despite increased attention on farming and our food system at large. For a while I was anxious it'd be a heavy lift to watch, but I think audiences are generally pretty brave and support independent cinema because they want to be moved. In fact, I've noticed a surprising number of other docs screened alongside it also focus on or allude to suicide, so it's clearly something that's increasingly a part of public consciousness and discourse. It's since been shared by at least one senator, some rural health orgs, and others, so I'm really hopeful it can shake things up a bit.

Nigrin: Are there any memorable stories while you made this film or any other info about your film you would like to relay to us?

Mertz: The US is losing farms and farmland faster than is sustainable - largely because we've created an economic system that makes farming an almost impossible career. Support your local farms, buy locally whenever you can; society can only remain free so long as our food system is stable and accessible, and keeping small farms in business is the way to ensure that. Fans of the film / the Pawelskis can also support them by visiting their website, orneryonion.com, where they can buy vegetables directly from the family or even buy onion-themed merch.

Muckville will be playing at the Spring 2024 New Jersey Film Festival as part of the Shorts #1 Program on Saturday, January 27 – Online for 24 Hours and In-Person at 7PM in Voorhees Hall #105/Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, NJ. Muckville Director Jeff Merz will be on hand to do a Q+A after the In-Person screening! For more info and tickets go here.



 
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Albert Gabriel Nigrin is an award-winning experimental media artist whose work has been screened on all five continents. He is also a Cinema Studies Lecturer at Rutgers University, and the Executive Director/Curator of the Rutgers Film Co-op/New Jersey Media Arts Center, Inc.

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