Out Here in the Fields. Eastern Life Films, Inc. 2009. 40 minutes. Directed and photographed by Alec Hirshfeld. For more information: easternlifefilms.org.
This compilation of short films, described as “Three Stories of Land Preservation,” concern the preservation of farmlands in the tony east Long Island region. All three areas, Quail Hill Farm, Shellfisher Preserve, and the Babinski Farm (called “The Field on Beach Lane”), faced imminent sale and repartitioning by eager developers until the community-based Peconic Land Trust stepped in. The trust, according to its Web site, was formed “to ensure the protection of Long Island’s working farms, natural lands, and heritage” (peconiclandtrust.org/about.html).
The films are expertly constructed, crafted, and filmed. Each starts with a statement of the problem and description of the area slated for saving. To his credit, Alec Hirshfeld avoids the “talking head” style when interviewing trust members and farmers. They simply speak in voiceover. We do see them, but not with backs against walls and microphones clipped to shirt collars. A wealthy donor contemplatively peers out a window in “The Field on Beach Lane” as he discusses his rationale for contributing. Andy and Bill Babinsky are seen working outside (where else?) during their voiceovers.
Bear in mind that this is an informational documentary about a certain type of conservation issue. It’s designed to inform viewers about the work the trust is doing in saving these centuries-old family businesses. Audiences looking for confrontational-style documentary, with scenes of high drama, grainy archival footage, and dueling POVs must look elsewhere.
Instead, in these films they are treated to Hirshfeld’s masterful filming style. A long-time veteran in the film industry, he knows how to frame a shot and make a mundane scene sparkle with eye-catching technique. In one sequence in “The Field on Beach Lane,” he trains his camera on a country road and uses a short -duration time exposure to show cars rapidly whizzing by, a style popularized by Godfrey Reggio in Koyaanisqatsi (1982). Another notable scene shows an extended time exposure of a cornfield being tilled and growing from what looks like early to late spring. Hirshfeld doesn’t overuse this technique, but rather uses it to vary the rhythm and flow.
As such, Out Here in the Fields is a worthy effort in persuasive documentary filmmaking that attracts and convinces, not through fear-mongering and vertiginous MTV-style editing, but through the issues it raises and the creative techniques it employs.