It Takes a Few Minutes to Get Things Off the Ground
“Can I say something from an outside, objective position?” asks Paul Dillon. He’s a lawyer, asked to advise a farmers’ collective, a collective trying to start up their own milk distribution company, Maine’s Own Organic Milk Company, MOO Milk. Dressed in shirt and tie, he sits at the head of a table, two Oreos in his hand. “Everywhere I speak,” Paul says, “MOO Milk is recognized nationwide as this renegade, we’re-gonna-make-this-happen, we’re-doing-something-that’s-never-been-done-before, because it’s the only way you’re going to do something different, is if you do something different.” The camera in Betting the Farm cuts to the farmers who’ve hired him: they wear t-shirts and caps. They nod, as he insists that their idea is a good one.
It’s a key moment in Cecily Pingree and Jason Mann’s documentary, the opening night film at this year’s Camden Film International Festival, screening on 27 September. Now in its eight year, the Festival describes itself with the phrase, “Small towns, big films,” suggesting an ethos and an organizing principle, a commitment to showcasing stories much like the one told in Betting the Farm—hopeful, hardscrabble efforts to take hold of their own difficult circumstances and change their lives.
The film, alternately lovely and nerve-wracking, follows the efforts of a group of farmers whose lives are altered irrevocably when the milk company H.P. Hood summarily terminates their contracts in 2009. Second-, third, even eighth-generation dairy farmers, they’re forced to scramble to find another way to do their work. At first, forming their own company sounds like a terrific idea. Bill Eldridge, MOO Milk’s new CEO, floats the idea at an agricultural trades show in Augusta, Maine, where he finds enthusiastic potential customers (“I haven’t bought a Hood product since they did that,” asserts one woman, passing on to the next table with her husband in tow). But it’s not long before the farmers run up against some basic problems of running a business, from faulty equipment to leaky cartons.
For a moment, it appears MOO Milk gets a PR boost when Rush Limbaugh takes it up in February of 2010, complaining that the company’s legal status allows it to seek money from government grants and loans. His (predictable) complaint is that MOO Milk represents what’s wrong with today’s welfare state, rewarding “companies that do not make a profit, if someone approves of their social mission.” While Vaughn Chase and his wife Laura lament that they’re Republicans in the face of such party-branded ignorance, you might reflect on how the $110 billion a year dairy industry finds ways to its own government “rewards.”
The farmers’ processes here—as they sort out how to run a multi-part company while also making sure barns get swept, kids have Christmas, and calves are born—are indicated in an evocative mini-montage, slipping from shots of daily chores and widescreen farmscapes to men and women in jeans and on their phones, in the car in traffic, standing out by the pickup, in a home office, shoes worn smooth on the soles up on the desk. When Vaughn Chase leans back from his desk during one call, the camera takes a moment to reframe, an image that beautifully suggests both the logistical concerns they’re facing and also, underlining how this documentary is telling its stories, by smart compositions as well as by talking heads.
And sometimes, Betting the Farm offers both. As the farmers ponder ways to “expand the marketplace,” Aaron Bell and a couple of other farmers stand in the twilight, contrasting the uncertainties they’re facing with their cows. “It’s really stress-free in the barn, actually, because the cows are so mellow,” he says, “They’re just chewing their cud.” The farmers laugh, seeing a bigger picture and also a smaller one. It’s a moment of peace amid the stress of doing “something different,” a moment that reminds you how the farmers got started and how they can also move forward.
A similar contrast in scopes is on display in one of the films screening Friday at the Festival, Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s Off Label. Looking at the many ways that pharmaceuticals shape everyday lives, this documentary shows the pain and the contexts of addictions, the complicated connections among individuals, cultures, and corporations.
“It was obvious he was deteriorating by his demeanor, he was losing a lot of weight and he was gaunt. And he felt he was being plagued by devils. He was psychotic.” As Mary Weiss remembers her son Dan Markingson, 26 years old when he was put into a clinical trial at the University of Minnesota in November 2003, you see photos of Dan as a child. He squints in the sun or wears a football helmet, he purses his lips to whistle or stands on the beach in a white hoodie, his smile assured and his sandy hair windswept.
As a boy, you see in photos that illustrate Mary’s memories, Dan was beautiful. As a young man, he was tormented. He was also exploited by his attending physician at Fairview Riverside Hospital, Dr. Stephen Olson, the principal investigator in a clinical study at the University. Looking back, Mary describes Olson’s “clear conflict of interest.” Though she asked that Dan’s doctors release him from the trial, they did not, and Dan’s “inner rage” emerged. He killed himself in 2004.
Off Label (2012)
Mary’s story is one of many in Off Label, stories of the connections between individual cases and big pharma, that is, the expansion of prescription medications. Michael Oldani, a former drug rep, describes his strategies to make sales. He pitched his product to doctors, and maybe, once, believed what he told them. “It’s easy to say we’re a world on drugs,” he says. The film considers how “we” became such a world. It’s not only that cases call for drugs, but also, and more pervasively, that companies have drugs to sell. “There’s a religiosity to being a drug rep,” Michael says, “In terms of believing that you are doing good work.” It wasn’t “until I was almost done,” he says, “That I realized what we’re doing here is really kind of shady.”
The same description might be applied to a range of other legal activities within the industry, the use of drug testers, people paid to participate in studies, like the self-described “human guinea pigs” Paul Clough (“A lot of people who do studies seem to like to gamble,” he says while the camera follows him through a casino, “Playing for the one chance that I might hit it big”) and Robert Helms, who says, “It’s a take-take relationship between me and the pharmaceutical companies: they need bodies to do the testing and I need money.”
Such need once led Robert to appear on To Tell the Truth, an exceptionally creepy convergence of entertainment and exploitation included in Off Label underscores that he lies to doctors to enroll in trials, about his medical history and his age, for instance, otherwise he would not be selected. The doctors know he’s lying, he says, but he lies for “pennies,” whereas the drug companies are lying “to make billions of dollars over the many, years they have a patent on the drug. They have an agenda to prescribe these drugs to as many people as possible.”
Jusef Anthony was one of these people, tested when he was in Holmesburg Prison. “God has a prescription,” he says, “And inside, man, locked up in his spine, is 10,000 deadly diseases, locked up in cells. And every time you go outside of the boundaries of the prescription that life is supposed to be about, God releases one of those deadly diseases or germs into the your system as a warning that something is wrong and needs to be corrected. You see what I mean?”
For Jusef, something went wrong at Holmesburg. “You’re doing time in there,” he says, “That’s part of your life missing, that’s punishment enough.” Now he sits in a booth at a diner, awaiting the delivery of his lunch, a salad made of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and anchovies. “Yeah man, this looks tasty!” he enthuses, as the camera hovers over his plate. Jusef (born Edward) has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and rheumatoid arthritis, conditions he traces back to his time in prison, where he was told by a Dr. Cleveland that he would be testing bubble bath: his skin itches to this day, he says, over a close shot of his yellow, crusty fingers.
The drug industry depends on faith—of doctors and reps, testers and patients. Jusef has found his own way through his particular pains through his turn to Islam, and he demonstrates for the filmmakers how praying can make a difference. Paula Yarr finds solace in the Boulder Creek Community Church, near her home in Santa Cruz, California. Severely bipolar, she describes her effort to maintain faith—and vigilance—with regard to her prescriptions. She’s been hospitalized for poly-pharmacy, she says as a young woman who might be her daughter sits quietly on a couch in the background, her own daughter on her lap, a handmade paper mask on her face. Paula’s neighbor Michael runs a Big Foot Museum, and while he extols his own faith in the creature’s existence—or maybe it’s the faith he pitches to solicit business—Paula sorts through the many bottles of pills she confronts every day.
The effects of drugs on generations of users find a kind of perfect storm in Andy Duffy, former Army medic in Ira. Assigned to the prison at Abu Ghraib, he was instructed to treat prisoners by using a 14-gauge needle. “I know that’s purely to inflict pain,” he says, the camera tight on a monster hypodermic. Once he had faith that he would be able to “do good” as a medic, now Andy’s haunted by what he did do, and what he saw. The film offers wartime footage and photos as he describes his memories. The VA, he says, prescribes pills without therapy, long lists of medications that don’t necessarily address veterans’ specific issues, but are instead the products available due to “contracts with certain pharmaceutical companies.” Andy sighs, his faith just about run out. “I don’t need medication, I need help.”
Off Label brilliantly exposes how the many routes from faith and trust to desperation and despair are varied and sometimes hard to trace. It’s a fitting juxtaposition that the film conveys such intimate and difficult stories in images that are at once gorgeous and fleeting: trees dappled by sunlight, snowflakes whirling around gravestones, revolving doors reflecting hurrying forms and library microfiche machines whirring. Another set of machines—shiny and huge—pump and churn out hundreds of pills at a time, these nearly abstract images set alongside DEA agents dumping plastic sacks of medication into bins. As pills spill onto the camera like so many pink-and-yellow-and-blue promises, you see how this fiction persists.
Betting the Farm