The best documentaries are usually those that use a particular event, person, family, etc. to illustrate a problem in our society. Films like this that come to mind are Roger & Me, Capturing the Friedmans, Hoop Dreams, and Brother’s Keeper (all of which I highly recommend if you haven’t seen them already). Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern is one such film. It is about an elderly farming couple in Iowa who, in 1990, were faced with foreclosure of their farm, which had been in their family for over 100 years. The film was shot by the family’s daughter, Jeanne Jordan, and her husband, Steven Ascher.

Jordan bookends the film with her parents sitting in their living room watching an old Western. Like those Westerns, the issues in this film are pretty simple. The good guys are the farmers and their families who now face falling prices and unmaintainable mortgages. The bad guys are the big banks who foreclose on the farmers. The big banks are newcomers to the farming communities. Before their arrival, farmers would receive their loans from small community banks in their towns. With everyone knowing everyone else in the community, the banks’ relationship with the local farmers was one based on trust. Longtime farmers, like the one examined in this film, were trusted to repay their loans because they had always been good for the money. However, in the 80s and 90s, things began to go sour. Falling commodity prices and overexpansion forced many farms and banks to go under (sound familiar, housing bubble people?). Big corporate banks then came in and took over administering the farm loans. Instead of loaning money out to farmers based on past relationships and trust, the banks used risk/loss formulas to determine whether a farm was a worthy investment or not. The farm profiled in this film is one the bank determined to be a risky investment.

There is a great scene where Jordan goes to the corporate offices of Norwest Bank, which administers her parents’ loan. The office is located in a tall, cold, and imposing skyscraper. The loan officer, with a blank, hard demeanor, refused to discuss Jordan’s parents’ loan on camera. Instead, he used a hypothetical situation and went into a list of complex formulas and factors used to determine what constitutes a risky investment. It is a great illustration of how drastically circumstances have changed from what most farmers used to enjoy in the not too distant past.

Jordan nicely contrasts the past with the present to show the viewer how much things have changed. We are shown the house she and her large family grew up in and the high school she attended. We see old pictures of what the town looked like when it was founded, pictures of past generations of the family, and the story of how her parents met each other. The portrayals are effective, especially when contrasted with the bleak financial difficulties Jordan’s parents face in the present. It was especially sad to see a 70 year old couple having to go through such difficult hardships rather than enjoying their golden years in peace.

The film culminates in the auctioning of the family’s belongings in order to pay off their bank debt. It is quite emotional to watch things with sentimental value being tagged and auctioned off so unceremoniously. However, what gives this story hope is the support and optimism the entire family maintains in spite of everything going on around them. You often hear about the resilience and strong work ethic that is common among farmers. This is no truer than what you see here as the family perseveres and continues to push forward in order to survive.

As you can tell, I really enjoyed the film. You get a stark and honest glimpse into an aspect of American society that many do not know about. Sure, most of us heard about the farming crisis in the 80s and how difficult it is to run a farm, but  we don’t usually see the faces behind the stories we hear. Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern nicely dispels any cute notions people may have of what the farming life is like and I urge you to check it out on DVD.Troublesome Creek

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