Good Things Await is not your typical farm documentary. It is no expose of the abuses of the industrial food industry, in the manner of Food, Inc and its descendants. Nor is it one of the adamant defenses of organic agriculture that are now unavoidable in documentary festival lineups. Rather, Phie Ambo’s profile of farmer Niels Stokholm and his much-embattled biodynamic farm is more usefully restrained and spiritually attuned than anything else in the genre.
Thorshøjgaard is a farm devoted to raising its livestock according to the animals’ original instincts. Stokholm founded it in 1975 as a way to preserve the once-dominant breed of cows in his country, Danish red cattle. His methods, some of which are more controversial than others, have made him just as many friends as enemies. He supplies ingredients to Noma, the Copenhagen eatery ranked #1 in the entire world by Restaurant Magazine in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014. This collaboration allows Ambo to follow her subject’s produce to a dinner held at the National Museum in Copenhagen, attended by Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.
Yet in spite of the evident concern that Denmark’s elite has for this quality of cuisine, the actual mechanism of government is dead set against Stokholm’s practices. He is cited for the way he keeps his cows, ordered to put a giant tarp over his piles of manure, and surprised frequently by government inspectors despite their insistence that each visit is “random.” A particular point of contention is his refusal to remove the horns of his cattle, despite widespread Danish practice to the contrary. Eventually he is taken to court over the way he houses his livestock, putting everything up to and including his license for animal husbandry at risk.
What makes Good Things Await such an interesting, refreshing film is Ambo’s refusal to succumb to simple, one-note anger at the authorities for interfering in this farmer’s life. She puts much more effort into understanding Stokholm than into defending his image, crafting a portrait of his character rather than an argument on behalf of his work. Besides, not everything he says falls into the realm of easily argued, science-based environmentalism. He’s more of a spiritualist.
For example, his plan for solving a cow’s worm-based indigestion is to feed her beets in accord with the phases of the moon. This blend of logical homespun remedy and astrological technique characterizes his whole approach. When a cow is slaughtered, he lets the blood seep into the earth in order to maintain the spiritual integrity of the herd. He sees everything in the context of this intangible energy, an understanding that every living thing on his farm has to be preserved, from the earthworms in the manure to the horns on his cows.
Ambo engages cinematically with Stokholm’s philosophy through sequences that interrupt the documentary’s narrative and highlight the physical qualities of Thorshøjgaard. She places the grass, the cattle, and the earth itself front and center, as if searching for their hidden souls with her camera. These moments are accompanied by a stunning a cappella score from Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. The music possesses a clear spirituality, drawing on the warmth and fervor of church music, while its tonality eases in a different direction, approaching something almost druidical.
Stokholm is, after all, both ahead of the times and behind them. He is an old man applying techniques much older than himself to a world rushing quickly into a technologically advanced future. He possesses both great stubbornness and great vision, and it is often hard to tell which is which. Ambo is a witness to his 80th birthday, a reminder that the farm will some day have to live on without his stewardship. The future is unclear, and Good Things Await is hardly excitably optimistic. Yet if Stokholm’s philosophy has one indisputable strength that would be its beauty, and this film captures it perfectly.