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The Best Documentary You'll Never See
7 August 2009 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

While working for the US Department of Agriculture's Motion Picture Service during the late 1960s, I had a chance to screen this marvelous, mysterious, documentary. Since it was produced for USIA, and since USIA films cannot be legally shown publicly in the US, this was a unique opportunity. I thought at the time that it was one of the most wonderful and delicious documentaries I had ever seen, and we screened it in the MPS theater many times.

It's been over forty years since I saw it last, but much of the film remains firmly in memory. HARVEST describes the American farm and farmer at harvest time, beginning in Texas, as I recall, with the first cutting of winter wheat, and following the season north during the film, all the way to the Canadian border.

Ballard's use of sunrise light, long lenses, and powerful music are well known to audiences today, but the style and substance of this film were unique -- in my experience, at least -- back in 1968. Aaron Copeland's music provided an emotional depth to the story that I found to be overpowering every time I screened our print. Who would have thought that a film about harvesting wheat, corn, and other food crops could be powerfully emotional? One particular sequence always seemed entirely perfect -- in the sequence, a farmer puts on his hat, opens his farmhouse door, and steps outside to start his day...cut to: another farmer puts on his hat, opens the door, and starts his day...cut to: yet another farmer, and then another farmer putting on their hats, opening their doors, and beginning another day of harvest. If you or I or anybody else had tried this, it would fall flat but Ballard's use of these natural movements, one after another, make the whole sequence like a series of elegant dance moves. It's been a long time, but I think the only thing on the soundtrack at this point is "Fanfare for the Common Man" -- regardless, the effect of the repeated simple movement was extremely powerful.

HARVEST has the rare virtue in a documentary film of having a very sparse narration. What there is of it is just enough to provide the viewer with a little guidance without a lot of preaching.

Ballard and I were sort of neighbors once and I took the liberty of calling him up -- he was in the phone book then, and may be still -- to tell him how much I enjoyed the film. He wasn't complimented or even very polite about it and dismissed HARVEST as a sort of agricultural industry promotion. He certainly wasn't proud of the film, despite the Academy Award nomination. It was a short, brittle, conversation.

Even so, and at the risk of offending him again, HARVEST gets my vote for Ballard's best film ever. It is certainly one of the best documentaries I've ever seen. And if it were available for American audiences to see, I believe many would enjoy it. But since that law is still in effect, HARVEST is probably the best documentary film you will never see.

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