Wulf immigrated to the US in 1959 to build up his own farm. He worked hard, the farm grew and he did well enough to support his wife and six children. In 1997 when he meets the directors of the film, he and two of his sons and families are living off the farm. During the five years it takes to shoot the film, however, things go downhill quickly and a life’s work is about to disappear.
The source of the problem is the extension of the American dream: some companies have become ‘too’ successful and buy up all the smaller agriculture processing plants that used to buy the farm produce from farmers, and also bought the grain, fertilizer and pesticide businesses. The many companies that previously provided reasonable competition and fair prices are replaced by a few multinational corporations, such as ConAgra, which as almost the sole operator can set any price level it wants to. ConAgra presses the prices so much that they don’t even cover the farmers’ production costs, pushing them out on thinner and thinner ice.
This is today’s America, and one of Wulf’s friends says that he has always been glad to live in a country where the government didn’t interfere too much with people’s lives. But in the current situation, he would rather have his life controlled by a democratically elected government than a big multinational corporation on which he has no influence.
Telling Wulf’s story, American Dream is about the consequences of concentrating markets and power in the hands of a few big corporations, which is the general trend today. The film deals with people affected by this trend: small family-run businesses – in this case a farm – that can’t make a living even though they are hardworking men and women with very modest needs. It is a genuine tragedy that unfolds in front of the camera, following Wulf’s family during five years when things go from bad to worse. It is unbearable to watch the family members who always have a smile ready for the directors. Towards the end of the film as the camera lingers on their faces, true pain emerges behind their smiles.
There is a lot to study in the pictures, both the close-ups allowing the faces to tell their own story, and the wide shots of the remote landscape with the mountains in the background. Together with Titus Vollmer’s music, they create a mood of the Wild West, the lonesome farmer struggling against the villains. The film doesn’t suggest who will win the fight, however.