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40 Years Later, Documentary Looks Fondly at a Failed Experiment in Communal Living

Filmmaker Liz Marshall has a special perspective on Midian Farm — she was a child there.

Dorothy Woodend 6 Mar

Dorothy Woodend is The Tyee’s culture editor. Email her here.

British Columbia has a long history of alternative communities. The Kootenays, where I grew up, has seen waves of folks moving to the country and attempting to remake society.

In the 1950s, the Freedomites, a breakaway Doukhobor sect, stripped off their clothes and burned their possessions in protest against government intervention. The late ’60s brought American draft dodgers, followed by back-to-the-land hippy types in the ’70s who built geodesic domes and grew organic vegetables.

Similar social experiments were taking place across Canada, and filmmaker Liz Marshall was part of one of them. In 1971, her parents moved to Beaverton, Ont., and started a commune called Midian Farm.

Although it was faith-based, Midian was non-denominational, founded on the ideals of social justice, peace and communal living. It attracted young people interested in growing their own food, and yes, building those damn geodesic domes.

But the usual forces that tear human societies apart (no money, hard work and bad behaviour) took their toll, and by 1977 the experiment was over.

Marshall, whose films have examined animal rights (The Ghosts In Our Machine) and resource extraction (Water on the Table), took a decidedly personal approach making a documentary about Midian Farm, interviewing not only her parents but looking at her own childhood through the lens of photographs, home movies and unspoken stories.

The film opens March 15 at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver, and Marshall will be at the opening weekend showings for Q&As with the audiences.

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Filmmaker Liz Marshall at Midian Farm. Photo from Facebook.

The Tyee asked Marshall about her work and her thoughts on the possibility of changing human society.

The Tyee: In this moment, when people are actively looking for alternative ways of living together, and living more sustainably, what lessons does Midian Farm offer?

Liz Marshall: On one hand the film is a glimpse into a historic era, and on the other the film is offering us insight into something universal and timeless. It is our collective human nature to strive for solutions, to come together and to experiment. What lessons does Midian Farm offer us today? Question the status quo. Foster a worldview, be engaged with community, but not at the expense of yourself and loved ones. Love better.

This a very personal film for you. Did you have any reservations about making the film and digging into your own family’s history and experience?

Yes, I had many reservations, but was motivated by a need and a curiosity to understand this buried piece of my history. To begin, I focused my MFA master’s thesis around the themes of Midian Farm and it became clear I needed to delve into the personal, which was new for me as a filmmaker. It was terrifying at times, but I tested ideas and kept going. Later, I decided to make the feature documentary to do justice to multiple aspects of the story. I spent three years on this journey to understand my roots, my parents and to unearth a piece of Canadian countercultural history. I am left with a feeling of gratitude.

As an adult, how do you feel about your parent’s decisions to follow their utopian ideals?

I see Grainger [Marshall’s father] and Diane’s [Marshall’s mother] journey together from the ’60s to the mid-’70s as idealistic. That purity of intention is beautiful in my view and not something I dismiss through cynicism. I honour my parents, my aunts and uncles and the community for what they created together.

In interviewing the people who were part of Midian Farm, was there anything that surprised you about how the community came together and how it fell apart?

Forty-five years after the purchase of Midian Farm, I interviewed an eclectic group of two dozen former members — a combination of original owners, regular and peripheral visitors. For each person it was an act of excavation, memory retrieval and reflection. Each interview was a recorded conversation with me, more than two hours long. From those transcripts, the film team and I looked for continuity of basic facts to form a narrative spine — to understand the timeframe of the farm, its underpinnings and activities.

I was also seeking each person’s individual emotional and intellectual experience. I was most surprised by the Christian theme. I learned that this young group of Christians were aligned in a desire for counterculture and grassroots social justice work. They wanted to better the world by following in the footsteps of Jesus. They were not trying to convert people.

Alternative communities and social experiments have not always been portrayed very favourably in documentary. Do you feel that people have been led to believe that social experiments are always doomed to collapse?

Yes, I think there is skepticism, fear and caution when people hear about back-to-the-land social experiments and city communes. There is also fascination and intrigue — people want to know these stories. There was a rise in guru adoration in the 1970s, of predominately male leaders. Polygamy, sexual abuse, mind control and murder made headlines. There were some devastating and shocking stories. With Midian Farm there was the seed of guru adoration, but much more than that it was a clean-cut, well-intentioned community of Canadian progressive Christian hippies trying to better the world. Does that sound boring? The human dynamics were very present, and are reflected in the film and I handle those through both a personal and universal lens.

Unlike many films that focus on the darker underbelly of social experiments, there seemed to be such genuine warmth and deep affection for Midian Farm. Did the positive experiences at the farm carry on with people later in their lives?

Absolutely. When people agreed to participate in the film it was because they felt it was the right time in their lives — more than four decades had passed — to revisit something so formative and unusual. It was painful at times, but ultimately it was brave and it was loving. I felt so supported to make this film. Through the experience a lot of reconnection has taken place. There is a clear rearview mirror, at least for me.

What would you like audiences to take away from your film about the possibility of change in the world and in their own lives?

Change is always possible. I am committed to it. I come by it honestly. What makes the human experience beautiful is hope. The spirit to try. When we try to love better, to give, to work for social justice, we are each making a profound difference. It is human nature to change, to fail, to stumble, to fall. Nothing is permanent, but we can learn by looking at history in society, in our families and in our own lives.  [Tyee]

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