In 1981, David Weir and Mark Schapiro wrote a book titled “Circle of Poison: Pesticides and People in a Hungry World” whose ideas, more timely than ever, are the foundation for the film of the same title that premieres today on VOD platforms (ITunes, Amazon.com). Co-directed by Nick Capezzera, Evan Mascagni and Shannon Post, it is the definitive film critique of pesticides that benefits from a wide array of scientific experts and activists including Weir himself who has credentials as both.
Probably the best thing Jimmy Carter ever did as President was outlaw the export of pesticides deemed too toxic for use within the USA. When companies such as Monsanto began dumping banned pesticides overseas in order to boost corporate profits, Carter, who is one of the documentary’s cast of interviewees, took the courageous step of protecting the largely poor and defenseless people of the global South from such poisons. As might have been predicted, one of Reagan’s first measures after entering the White House was rescinding Carter’s presidential directive.
Endosulfan was one such pesticide that was banned in the USA. The film shows the impact on farmworkers, their children, and poor people living in close proximity to fields where it was being sprayed. In the Kasargod District of Kerala, India, a prime grower of cashew nuts, scientists studied the impact of endosulfan and discovered a virtual epidemic of birth defects including bone deformities, infertility, mental retardation and congenital heart diseases.
Like Kerala, Argentina is heavily dependent on agro-exports that tend to be based on monoculture such as soybeans. The film interviews Sofia Gatica who lived near the soybean fields of Ituzaingó where the soybean fields were being sprayed with both endosulfan and Monsanto’s Roundup, a herbicide that is used in conjunction with genetically modified crops. Its active ingredient is glysophate that has many of the same risks to health posed by endosulfan even though it remains legal.
When Gatica’s 3-day-old daughter died from kidney failure, she did not connect it to environmental causes but after she kept hearing about such unexpected deaths and childhood illnesses in Ituzaingó, she decided to investigate. She began going door to door asking if a household had experienced health problems and discovered a pattern. The closer you live to a soybean field, the more likely you were to be a victim of pesticide poisoning. She organized the Mothers of Ituzaingó to both uncover such cases and to press for an end to indiscriminate spraying. Their efforts led to Argentina’s Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that agrochemicals could not be sprayed near populated areas
Although the film did not take up the connection between the character of Kerala and Argentina’s governments and their permitting such atrocities to take place, it could not be lost on me that both were supposedly progressive states. Kerala has been ruled by Communists for years while Argentina was ruled by the Peronist Kirchners during the period when Ituzaingó was being poisoned.
Despite their professed sympathies for the poor, the Communists and the Peronistas were locked into a mode of production that relied heavily on industrial farming. In a way, the cashew nuts of Kerala and the soybeans of Argentina were a double-edged sword just as oil production has been in Venezuela. It is both key to economic development and the suffering of poor people who are in its path. Since both Kerala and Argentina have since abolished the worst practices of toxic pesticides, you can at least credit their governments for being susceptible to popular pressure.
As an alternative to industrial farming that relies heavily on chemical fertilizers and herbicides, “Circle of Poison” points to Bhutan’s adoption of organic farming in what it admits is a very small part of its territory. If farmland in Bhutan is limited by its mountainous geography, you might say that it is less of challenge politically to move in the right direction.
But what about nations that are heavily reliant on agro-exports? Ironically, the collapse of the USSR forced Cuba to abandon chemicals for the simple reason that they were no longer available. They became organic because they had no alternative, making a virtue out of necessity.
That being said, Cuba still seeks to apply chemicals to export crops as opposed to the organic farming that largely addresses domestic needs. Cuba has begun producing its own version of Roundup and will likely rely on pesticides in the production of sugar cane and tobacco, two crops of dubious values except for providing badly needed foreign revenue.
Although he too is involved in organic farming, Peter Dunning is not likely to be mistaken for the typically laid-back and blissed-out farmers featured in just about every documentary I have seen promoting Green values.
He is the eponymous subject of “Peter and the Farm” that opens Friday at the Metrograph in New York. Directed by Tony Stone, the film consists of the 68-year old owner of a farm near Brattleboro, Vermont producing organic livestock going about his daily chores while the camera watches on. When he is not behind the wheel of his tractor or tending to dirty and menial tasks such as clipping a calf’s hooves, he is sitting at his kitchen table spilling out his guts to the film crew. With a psyche resembling Charles Bukowski much more than Henry David Thoreau, Dunning is a burnt-out case. He goes on farming even though it doesn’t give him much pleasure. Alone in the world, likely the outcome of his own prickly temperament, he is an alcoholic with nothing to live for–so much so that he keeps referring to the suicide he is planning for the benefit of the filmmakers who have descended upon his quaint and picturesque farm that has become a living hell for him.
Although Dunning is obviously highly skilled at his chosen occupation, he is not the typical farmer. As an art major in college and still very good with a brush or a pencil, he came to Vermont like most people did in the sixties and seventies—to “get back to the earth”. The farm was meant to be a means to an end, making art, but eventually he became a slave to the chores necessary to keep a farm going. Indeed, unlike any other documentary I have ever seen, this one demystifies farming especially when a veterinarian plunges his entire arm into a cow’s anus to determine whether she is pregnant.
Before buying the farm thirty-four years ago, Dunning tried his hand at other typically Vermont vocations, even nearly losing it in the process. When working in a sawmill, he lost about half of his left hand in an accident that left him in a hospital bed for three months. He tells the director that it is prisons and hospitals that remind you of the human condition more than anything.
As the film starts, Dunning remarks on the sheep who he has just shepherded back into their barn with the help of his dog, his only companion in the world apparently. He says that they are always sizing him up, like the way that prisoners size up their guard in prison. In our mad and alienated world, it is the farmer who is the subject of the capitalist who makes a profit off the sweat and blood of men like Peter Dunning and it is the farmer’s beasts who he profits from in turn.
Long ago, I learned that it is the documentary film that has surpassed the narrative film in character development. And on that criterion alone, “Peter and the Farm” excels more than any documentary film I have seen this year and just about any other year for that matter. It will likely be my nomination for one of the best documentaries of 2016,
Opening today at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, “The Eagle Huntress” is about a 13-year old girl breaking into a traditionally boy’s only pastime but in a most exotic setting: the Mongolian steppes. In addition, the pastime is as exotic as the setting: training eagles to hunt small animals. She too is exotic, a member of a nomadic Kazakh family.
That being said, the documentary depicts a conflict that many Americans will find familiar since it is closely related to what parents might face if a daughter of the same age decided to try out for the football team. As the film demonstrates, the fight for gender equality is almost universal today, even on the Mongolian steppes.
My strongest advice to New Yorkers with young daughters. Take them to see this film, which is both inspiring in an offbeat feminist fashion as well as an introduction to documentary film at its best. The cinematography will leave you breathless and the scene of a young girl climbing down a cliff to wrest a nestling eaglet away with her is not to be believed.
Although the Kazakhs live in Mongolia, they are not Mongols ethnically. They are a Turkic people and Muslims unlike the Buddhist Mongols. The film notes provide some useful background:
In 1911, Mongolia’s leader Bogd Khan accepted them as citizens of Mongolia, and agreed to designate the area for them to settle. After Mongolia became a Communist country in 1924, leader Khorloogiin Choibalsan led a brutal purge of Kazakhs, Buddhists, and others, confiscating their properties and animals, and killing over 30,000 people. From 1947-1957, there were very harsh government directives for meat and other resources, from which the entire nation starved. In the late 1950s, after Choibalsan’s death, impoverished Kazakhs and other herders donated their animals to the communist collectives. During all this political turmoil, nomadic ways of life were disrupted, and only came back into balance during the last decade of the 20th century.
When Kazakhstan declared independence in 1991, they welcomed all Kazakhs in diaspora to return. Over 70,000 Mongolian Kazakhs did so, and only 100,000 remain today. Kazakhs are still the largest ethnic minority in Mongolia, representing 4% of the population. They have their own Kazakh language, which belongs to the Turkic family of languages, and are predominantly Muslim, whereas the majority of Mongolians are Buddhist or non-religious. 90 percent of the Kazkhs live in Bayan-Ölgii, and the rest live mostly in Khovd Province and Ulaanbaatar, the nation’s capital.
The film’s two principal characters are the 12-year old Aisholpan and her father Nurgaiv who is a master eagle hunter. Fascinated by his exploits from an early age, Aisholpan is bent on following in her father’s footsteps even though village elders frown on a female breaking into an all-male fraternity. Throughout the film, we see them chatting among themselves about how women should stay at home rather than hunt with eagles. Fortunately, Nurgaiv defies them and trains his daughter to the point where she is capable of competing in the annual Eagle Festival that is the thrilling climax of the film.
Director Otto Bell decided to make this, his first full-length documentary, after seeing a photo of Aisholpan in a BBC news report. Considering the challenges of filming in a remote area with subjects from a culture so different than his own, Bell succeeded beyond expectations. In a way, this is the kind of film that Robert Flaherty should have made rather than “Nanook of the North” that had Inuit carrying out practices that they had long abandoned in order to cater to America’s romantic perceptions of how natives lived. Bell’s film stands out for its accurate depiction of daily life of the nomads as well as its artistic transcendence of the everyday.
You can get an idea of the work that went into the making of the film from the press notes (the Spurlock mentioned below is Morgan Spurlock, the guy who nearly ended up in the hospital from an all-McDonald’s diet he followed in “Super Size Me”—he certainly knows how to live life on the edge.)
With financing secured, Bell returned to Mongolia with the largest crew he had to date—four people, including a soundman, Andrew Yarme—to shoot the hunt scenes. Although the hunt looks like it takes place during one day, it actually took 22 days to film, as it was impossible for the crew to say out in the -40 weather for more than a few hours at a time. To make matters worse, Bell broke his arm shortly before he left and had to cope with the bitter cold while wearing a cast. “We dress warm for hunting,” says Aisholpan, “but it was not easy.” Says Bell: “I bet the people making THE REVENANT had warm blankets. We did not. We had to light fires underneath the engine block of our van in order to get it to turn over. Our hands stuck to the tripods and everything metal. We were looking for wild foxes in the middle of the tundra, and Aisholpan’s eagle was sometimes too frozen to fly aggressively.”
The filmmakers were experiencing the arduous reality of eagle hunting—something that few people can endure or quite frankly, would want to endure. This is why Aisholpan’s desire and ability to do it is so extraordinary. “One day just for fun when we were finished filming, I sat on one of their horses with Aisholpan’s eagle on my arm,” says Reiss. “I could barely hold my arm up—it’s a very heavy bird. That alone is not easy to do, but when you see Aisholpan riding her horse at full gallop, it’s incredible.” Says Spurlock: “It makes me really emotional to watch Aisholpan catch her eagle. There are things that you see that are such feats of human endeavor that you can’t even put words to them—they leave you speechless. I don’t even know how many times I’ve watched the film and I cry every time.”