As powerful evidence that the spirit of the Occupy movement continues, “Occupy the Farm” chronicles the struggle of Bay Area activists to preserve the last vestige of farmland in a major metropolitan center. On May 11, 2013 a group of activists, including some who had graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in agriculture, occupied the Gill Tract, a 104 acre plot of land owned by the university after learning that the increasingly corporatized institution planned to “develop” it. Part of the development included a Whole Foods supermarket, a supremely ironic touch since the Gill Tract was producing free food for its hungry neighbors under the auspices of the occupiers.
This is the second time I have seen the disgusting behavior of the Berkeley administrators in a documentary as they take on the riffraff. A large part of Frederick Wiseman’s “At Berkeley” showed how the top brass decided to smash student protests against escalating fees under a sanctimonious defense of keeping a “great” university going. As they get ready deploy the campus cops to throw the occupiers off their land, their excuse this time is to “serve the community” by creating new housing and leasing to Whole Foods, a predatory corporation that shares the Berkeley administration’s talent for sanctimonious self-justification.
Caught somewhat in the middle between the administration and the masses are the agriculture department faculty members who have been conducting corn experiments in Gill. They too would be usurped by Whole Foods and commercial development. The more left-leaning professors become part of the occupy movement while the more right-leaning (this is relative obviously, since we are in the Bay Area) try to make an accommodation with the administration.
The film supplies ample evidence that tight budgets explain the university’s hard-nose approach to the occupiers. With less public funding, the books can only be balanced through a revenue stream of commercial real estate and research funded by BP, among other scumbag corporations. Even if corn research seems more benign than commercial development in the Grill Tract, further investigation would reveal that much of it entails GMO and biofuel research rather than feeding the hungry.
Since I tend to stay on top of occupy-type protests and anything involving “Green” farming, I was surprised to learn that this exemplary movement eluded me completely. If those are the sort of issues that you find compelling as well (why else would you be here?), I recommend seeing the film at the Quad in New York starting today and at the Laemmle in Los Angeles starting next Friday. This is a documentary that will leave you feeling like the movement has power (I hope that is not a spoiler alert!)
Opening at Cinema Village today, “Drug Lord: the Legend of Shorty” recounts the efforts of two documentary filmmakers to track down and interview Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the head of the Sinaloa cartel and arguably the most powerful drug dealer in the world. Like Michael Moore searching around for GM boss Roger Smith, the dramatic tension involves major obstacles finding their subject. It is open to debate who was more of a menace to society, “El Chapo”, which means shorty, or Smith.
Director Angus MacQueen seems ambivalent about Guzman. Although it is almost impossible to overstate the damage he has done to Mexican society, he cannot help but romanticize him in the way that narcocorridos do, the genre that combines traditional music of the border region with lyrics that “toast” the gangsters wreaking havoc. At the start of the film, there are scenes from vintage Zorro films that are somewhat questionable. Zorro fought on behalf of the poor and the oppressed while Guzman was strictly in it for making money. This is not to say that his neighbors, friends and employees were not grateful for the occasional kindness, such as transporting a rancher’s son to a faraway hospital by helicopter. For every son Guzman might have benefited, there were likely a dozen other young men or women who lost their lives either through crossfire or through turf battles.
Guzman was essentially the Pablo Escobar of Mexico. He was the CEO of an immense corporation that exported goods all across the planet. The film does make clear that it was only because the government looked the other way that he managed to avoid arrest for 12 years. In 1993 he was arrested for his role in the killing of a Catholic priest who had information on his drug gang but escaped in a laundry cart in 2001, finally being captured last year.
The most interesting parts of “Drug Lord” consist of interviews with lower-level employees and associates of Guzman, whose faces were barely disguised. One imagines that this reflects the relative impunity such men enjoy in Mexico. They are frank in their assessment of the business, seeing death or arrest as a willing price to pay for a life that is almost impossible to achieve in Mexico through legal means.
Although I can recommend “Drug Lord”, I am still looking for a documentary on the Mexican drug trade that focuses on the political and economic aspects (what else would you expect from me?) It would be important to hear what Mexican radicals, especially those trained in sociology and history, have to say about the viral growth of drug syndicates over the past couple of decades. Much more could be said about the class dynamics of this terrible affliction that turned out to be responsible for the murder of 43 students. Something like this has to be reflected in a film:
Since 2006, more than 100,000 people have been disappeared or killed in Mexico, a country where more than 90 percent of crimes go unpunished. While running for president in 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto promised a new security strategy for the country, and an end to the highly militarized campaign waged by his predecessor, Felipe Calderón. Since taking office, however, Peña Nieto’s strategy has focused not on the safety of its people but on the confidence of its international investors. To make Mexico more attractive to overseas capital, he has pursued a market-based reform agenda that includes a technocratic overhaul of education, a move to shake up the telecommunications sector and the opening of the energy sector to foreign private investment. New narratives about the “Aztec Tiger” won’t make the kidnappings, beheadings and mass graves disappear, but Peña Nieto is doing everything he can to make foreign investors forget about them.
The irony of touting market-based reforms as a means of sweeping the drug trade under the rug is that the cartels themselves have become some of the most ruthlessly effective multinational capitalist enterprises in Mexico. The cartels are beginning to diversify, making money not just from drugs and other criminal activities like kidnapping and human trafficking but increasingly from control over industries like mining, logging and shipping.
Meanwhile, finance and real estate sectors in Mexico and the United States are awash with cartel profits, with one United Nations analyst arguing that drug money was the “only liquid investment capital” that kept the international economy from completely imploding in 2008. Over the last few decades Mexican capitalism has become a tangled web of legal and illegal activity, and the distinctions between licit and illicit economies have become increasingly blurred. The policies of the Mexican and US governments are only accelerating this trend.
“Salt of the Earth” not only shares the name of the witch-hunt period classic but also its advocacy for workers and the oppressed. Wim Wenders, the acclaimed sixty-nine year old German director, decided to make a film in honor of the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado whose work he became acquainted with 25 years ago. Wenders kept one of Salgado’s most famous prints on his desk, a panoramic shot of gold miners who labored in conditions not much different from the Indians in Peru, Bolivia or Mexico 400 years ago.
Born in 1944, Salgado was trained as an economist. He and his wife, who worked closely with him on his various projects over the years, were campus radicals who managed to keep one step ahead of the dictatorship. After he took a job as an economist in Paris, Delgado took up photography as a hobby but soon discovered that this was what he really wanted to do with his life.
Most of his photos are social in nature, for example covering the working class under oppressive conditions or war zones. But he is also passionate about nature. Wenders follows him on various trips around the world, including an amazing stint in the far north photographing walruses. Probably nobody is better suited to making such a film than Wim Wenders who has demonstrated a social consciousness in films such as “Land of Plenty” as well as a singular visual style.
Suffice it to say that this is greatest film about the art of photography I have ever seen. It opens on December 31, just in time for the various 2014 awards ceremony and certainly deserves my nod for best of the year.
Tomorrow (Saturday, Nov. 15) the IFC Theater in New York is hosting a documentary short program that includes a 30-minute film titled “Embedded” slotted for 12pm.
This is another documentary about a photographer whose subjects are most often victims of injustice but unlike Salgado, the 26-year old, cigarette-smoking, prematurely balding Sebastiano Tomada Piccolomini readily admits that it is not politics that puts him in harm’s way photographing the FSA in Idlib but an irresistible urge to be where the action is. He confesses to really feeling alive when he is in the war zone. One has to wonder if the cigarettes and the baldness are occupational hazards of living on the edge.
Piccolomini lives with his beautiful girlfriend in a lower Manhattan loft. Despite being quite fond of each other, Piccolomini takes great risks of losing her every time he packs up his gear and goes to someplace like Libya, Syria, Afghanistan or Egypt. He has already seen close friends killed in Syria doing the same thing he has done.
This is not a film about politics but about one man’s devotion to his profession. As such it is a good companion piece to “Salt of the Earth”. I have no idea whether Piccolomini was partial to the cause of the FSA in Syria but their cause was certainly helped—probably in a losing effort—because of his willingness to put his neck on the line. Piccolomini started off as a fashion photographer but found it unfulfilling. Check out this compelling short documentary to see how some young professionals still find taking risks on behalf of art—and perhaps freedom—worth it. (You can see his Syrian photographs here.)