The opening film of the Culinary Cinema at this year’s Berlinale Good Things Await, takes the audience on a journey to the Thor Højgård farm north of Copenhagen. Director Phie Ambo spent two years at the farm and offers a very close view at the way Niels (79) and his wife Rita (53) – who manage the farm almost by themselves – live and work. They run the farm based on biodynamic principles which state that man and earth are fundamentally connected to the universe. The result is high quality foods that convince NOMA, the world’s best restaurant, as well as a lot of the other best Danish cooks. And yet still Niels has to fight against the authorities.
Phie who was trained at the National Film School of Denmark approaches life on the farm with a lot of warmth and respect. Amidst all this idyll, she also captures the harsh aspects of maintaining a farm. Most of all, the film portrays the farm as a universe itself where everything is connected to everything else. We talked to Phie – read the interview below.
CFL: At the beginning of the film, there is a scene showing a calf being born. Niels asks you to leave the camera behind and lend him a hand. Tell us a little bit about that scene.
Phie: This is the kind of thing that you would normally edit out – the director walks in front of the camera and does something – but the reason why it’s in the film is because I wanted to show that I’m part of the farm and I’m not an objective observer. It was important to me to make that contract with the viewer right from the beginning, to make clear that this is not a film told by an objective journalist but a story that is told by someone that is living and working with these people. In order for me to describe the life at the farm, I also have to take part in it.
CFL: How big was the team you worked with?
Phie: I had some macro-images shot by another photographer who was actually my intern, so it was only me and Maggie. We each had our own camera, so she went around and she did her thing and I did my thing. That’s why it was very easy to not attract too much attention.
CFL: How did the idea arise to make this film in the first place?
Phie: I went to the farm with my youngest daughter, it was a pre-school trip to this biodynamic farm. When I got there, I could tell that this was a good place to make a film. Because there was a contrast between the quality of what Niels produces and how the farm looked. It was obvious that this was not a business that was easy to run, but at the same time he makes world-class meat, milk and cheeses.
CFL: Was it easy to convince Niels to make the film?
Phie: I told him that it would take at least two years to record the film. And that worked well with the pace that Rita and Niels have at the farm. They also can’t force anything, they have to take time to do what they do. There were a lot of times when I came to the farm and I didn’t even record anything because there was nothing happening to record. And that was fine with me because I had so much time. Recording a documentary is really much more about being there and observing what’s going on. What I found striking about Niels was that he never talked about how he produces things. He doesn’t produce milk, he receives the milk from the cows. So the way he talks about farming is so different from what we are used to and he doesn’t talk about efficiency or how many litres a day the cows produce. The cows give the milk they can make. It’s just a totally different way of looking at efficiency and productivity.
CFL: How was it to shoot with all the animals around?
Phie: That was pretty easy because the animals are used to people getting close to them at this kind of farm. At an industrial farm, I think I would have had a problem as the animals are not used at being petted and having people around them.
CFL: Niels’ work is based on the principle that there is a connection between human beings, the earth and the universe. What does that mean? Can you explain the biodynamic principles?
Phie: The biodynamic principles are inspired by Rudolf Steiner. But in the end, it’s up to every individual farmer how he deals with it. For example, weeds. These plants come and they loosen up the soil again, so instead of looking at it as a problem, you can start to see the benefits. Often we don’t see it because we are very focused on specific ways of having the crops and monoculture and efficiency, we don’t look at the whole circle and that we can’t harvest it all. So this is part of a whole worldview. How much do we need to give back to the earth and how much can we take. And for the whole industrial century, we have been taking much more than we have been giving back. So we are getting used to some kind of rate of efficiency that is not natural.
CFL: For Niels this way of farming is a concept of the future, he is very optimistic about it. Are you as well?
Phie: Looking at these small farms where you get all the food for the animals from your own farm means you don’t need to import anything. And that makes a lot of sense in a climate crisis situation where you shouldn’t transport things – for example genetically modified organisms – around the globe. You should work locally with the foods that are locally grown. And that’s what biodynamic farming is all about. Even people from industrial farms would say that it’s only logical to keep as much as possible local, anywhere in the world. In Africa, they should learn how to grow their soil only with things that are there, instead us forcing them to use pesticides coming from Europe. That’s one part of why I think that this is a very good idea. But another part is the benefits of having many different species. Now that we are used to monocultures, we are not used to eating according to the seasons. Before industrial farming, the whole way of eating was much more varied and we ate a lot of the stuff that we now consider as something we have to take out of the soil. A lot of garden owners have so much in their garden that they throw out but it’s actually very nutritious food. We should not eat so much of one thing but eat a little bit of a lot of different things which is also good for your health. This way of farming implies that you look very differently at what you are supposed to eat when you live in different parts of the world. So it’s a way of trying to restore the economic balance. If people start growing their own gardens and eating according to what is served in their near environment, that’s actually a very efficient way to hack those big companies that make money from making foods that are not nutritious, that are really bad for you and also very bad for the soil. This way of thinking can actually change a lot and the good thing is that we can all do it now, it’s not something we have to wait for other people to do for us. It’s a good way to take back the responsibility to every person instead of waiting for the politicians to make rules or waiting for the energy companies to make sustainable energy. We are all the time waiting for others to do something. And actually the citizens, at least in Denmark and other countries in Europe, are already ready to make the change while the politicians and the big industries are not. As soon as we start asking for locally grown biodynamic or organic vegetables, then this all will get started.
CFL: Because of a contradiction between his way of farming and organic principles, Niels has to deal with constant trouble caused by the authorities. In the end, he’s lucky and won’t lose his right to have animals. How did this part of the story continue?
Phie: You know what happened after the film? They sent him a letter to apologize, saying that they have gone too far. What also happened is that in 2015 his way of farming came on the financial law, so he’s going to get support from the government now. Before that, people who work with the rules and regulations, they could just go to the farm and say, you have a three-legged pig and that’s a problem. That was one example that is not part of the film because I didn’t film it. But once Niels had a three-legged pig but you are not supposed to have a three-legged pig. They say if the pig has only three legs, it can’t get the food that it wants. But that pig was as fat as the others, you could see that it did get the food that it wanted. But it had to be killed on the spot. And what happened, the pig was served at a big government dinner party. It’s so hypocritical! Because they know that the quality he makes is great, it just doesn’t fit the rules. But now they are starting to make the rules fit.
CFL: How did that happen? Did your film have any influence on that?
Phie: I think a film can push something if it is already there. This whole growing consciousness of what we eat and how we farm is already there and the biodynamic farmers have been working on that for so many years. But the film sort of made it a public area. A lot of people had opinions about it because a lot of them went to the cinema in Denmark to see it, also a lot of decision makers. A film can only change things if the change is already there and it’s just in need of a little push.
CFL: Niels says “Good things await us and we can do so much good.“ He sees himself as someone who is starting something new. Who will carry his idea into the future? Are there any followers yet?
Phie: There is a Nordic Initiative now called BINGN, it’s for Nordic biodynamic farmers. Even in Denmark, when you learn how to farm organically, you don’t learn anything about biodynamic farming. That is because biodynamic farming has a reputation of being something that is very strange and almost like a sect, like a religious sect. People haven’t taught anyone about it and that’s another reason why I thought it’s incredibly important to make this film, to show what biodynamic farming is all about, so you can make up your own mind. But first of all we need to show that it is not some crazy religious sect, it’s really trying to look at nature and to farm according to nature.
CFL: Niels talks about a very special connection between animal and human being and that he is learning a lot from them. Is there anything you learned from them while at the farm?
Phie: People tend to anthropomorphize animals, they tend to give animals the same feelings as humans and that becomes the argument of why you can’t eat them. Niels actually is a vegetarian but he is not at all against eating meat. But what became obvious to me when I was there, is that animals are animals and humans are humans. And there is a huge difference between how we are guided, how we make our choices and how animals make their choices. As Niels explains in the scene where the calf is just taken out and the cow is roaring: If she would have done that in the field, the other animals would have killed her. That’s what they do. If a cow falls into the river and it screams, people say ‘look at the cows, they are coming to help her’. No, they are coming to kill her. Because they want to make sure that the whole herd doesn’t attract predators. Sometimes we tend to romanticize animals a lot. In this example, they do it for the herd because they want the herd to be healthy. So if one of them is lying there and screaming, they kill it to make sure it doesn’t attract predators. And that is very different from the way we tend to look at animals. We tend to look at them like we can see ourselves in them. And I think that is really not trying to understand the animals. The people who come and say they want to take away Niels’ licence to farm, they are protecting animal rights. But they don’t look at the animal, they look at their own need. So it’s very important to not identify but to look at the animals and their principles, because anything else can create a lot of damage. It’s also a very egocentric way of looking at our surroundings. An animal is driven by its instincts, it is driven by something from the outside. And when you start to consider this big difference between animal and human being, then you realize that our responsibility is so much bigger, because we have to guide them.
CFL: When Niels talks about his farm, he describes it as a piece of art that inspires him. How did it inspire you?
Phie: I needed to spend time at a place where you don’t have to be somewhere at a specific time. And that was really good for me, because it brings things into perspective. We are so busy trying to be efficient, we want to do so many things in a very short time and sometimes we need to detox because it’s not necessarily creating good things. When I look at the way I was filming before I came to the farm, I had an instinct that I had to slow down. I had to start working simpler and slower. I wasn’t really happy with the film I made just before, I felt it had gone too fast. So in order to keep the inspiration, I had to pull back completely. I didn’t tell anyone that I was shooting this film on the farm, because I really needed a situation where I could just see what’s going to happen without me influencing it too much and trying to lose the need to control things.
CFL: Is this something that triggered a change in your everyday life?
Phie: What happened is that me and my husband, we started to create a school for kids, a school where you teach these ways of looking at economy and society. Because so many things of what children learn at school are based on the industrial way of looking at life. And once you realize that, you have to take them out of school. We couldn’t just start home schooling, so we actually built a school that is called the Green Free School.
CFL: Last question: Is there something specific you would like to provoke in your audience with this film?
Phie: I would like to give them the same experience that I got when I was at the farm, to open up your senses towards nature. There is so much that you can experience, there is so much calm and good things that happen when you take it easy and try to open up your senses. When you realize how much beauty there is in nature and how much it has to offer you, then you also start wanting to protect it much more.