Friday, April 27, 2012

Film Fest 3

As the film festival enters its third week, one might expect the fever to dissipate, the enthusiasm to wane, as a certain ennui descends on the scene. But no! Where else can you approach the ticket-taker and be greeted by the pleasant inquiry, “Women with Cows”? From what other event do you find yourself rushing home (from a matinee, no less), seizing a pitchfork from the garage, and scampering to the compost pile in the backyard to see what’s “cooking”?

No, the film festival never gets old.

And it’s not even that important to choose wisely among the hundreds of screenings. Even the most obscure entries are likely to be unlike anything you’ve seen before. Perhaps they more than any!

I found myself, last week, attending several films devoted to agricultural subjects. The best of the lot was Symphony of the Soil, a documentary that could hold its head high alongside that classic from the 1950s which many of us watched in grade school during the 1960s, Our Mr. Sun.

Where does soil come from? In the opening scenes we watch water trickle out from the base of a Norwegian glacier. The glacier has ground the rock into very fine dust, and as it drifts with the current it forms a luscious gray slurry—entirely mineral.

Eventually such stuff solidifies and attracts the attention of microbes, bacteria, lichens, and other stuff, most of which is too small to see. At that point the fascinating dance begins during which organisms extract what they need from the earth, die, and deposit organic material that accumulates, little by little, until something on the order of genuine soil is formed.

We watch people dig deep into Irish peat bogs and Hawaiian volcanic fields to find soils of various provenance and consistency, cradling the rich brown stuff in their hands with sensual delight.

There follows a sophisticated animated sequence explaining how plants emit chemicals to entice the microbes they favor into the soil, thus creating the environment they prefer for growth. Biologists explain how important nitrogen is to the soil, and describe how a particular set of plants—the legumes—have succeeded in capturing that often self-satisfied and inert chemical. Eventually we arrive at the point, following the bomb-making frenzy of WWII, where artificial fertilizers and Round-Up arrive on the scene. And we travel to India to experience, first-hand, the horrible legacy of the Green Revolution.

This is fascinating stuff. Not the perfect date movie, perhaps. But the thought crossed my mind on several occasions, “I’d like to see this again…I’ll bet Hilary would like it.”

Everyone loves forests, and lakes, and wildlife. Director Deborah Koons Garcia and her team have succeed in making soil itself an object of intrigue and affection and even reverence.

Near the end of the work some Biblical scholar—I don’t remember who—remarks that Adam and Eve, in the Hebrew, might just as well be called “earth” and “life.” His comments seem an appropriate wrap-up to all that has come before. The interchange between mineral and vegetable has taken on a poetic dimension, and as a result, I suspect those who view this film will never look at a piece of lichen in the same way ever again.

Slightly less engaging, perhaps, but certainly worth a look, is In Organic We Trust. Director Kip Pastor has asked, and answered, quite of few of the questions that face us every time we go to the grocery store. What does “organic” mean? Is it worth the money? There’s a cheery, Happy Days atmosphere to the film, as Kip marches up to the nation’s capital to grill the Department of Agriculture (they cancelled the meetings), or interrogates a member of the Hoover Institute (who gives some straight answers).

The best statistic from Symphony of the Soil was: “It takes 1,700 gallon of fresh water to make a gallon of ethanol.” The best statistic from In Organic We Trust was:“In 2010 there were more than 13,000 applications for “organic” certification. Only ten failed the test.”

But Pastor’s intent is not to pooh-pooh the organic food industry. His conclusions dove-tail nicely with those offered by the more scientific and cinematically sophisticated Symphony of the Soil.

And his film has a more practical bent, examining school lunch programs and urban farming initiatives, for example. Kip's graphics are charmingly crude. And both films end with more or less the same conclusion—stop growing so much corn! Stop eating so many hamburgers! Visit the farmer’s market more often. Try growing a few things yourself.

(Yes, but how many people who eat hamburgers or grow corn go to the farmer’s market, or for that matter, attend the Mpls. / St. Paul Int’l Film Festival?)

With the film Women with Cows, we get an inside look at a Swedish farm enterprise that’s totally detached from current debates about organic farm practices. Two sisters manage eleven cows on a farm bequeathed to them by their father. (Their mother died when they were infants.) Britt has become a hunchback, due to accidents with the cows. Yet she loves them and can’t think of any other life for herself than milking them. Her sister Erica hates the cows, hates to milk. She’s raised a family herself, yet she feels impelled to help keep the operation going for her sister’s sake.

It’s a character study, as much about cows as about people, perhaps. But it captures a certain dedication to the things a person has grown to love that outstrips many of the conventional romances we meet up with at the Cineplex. Flies and cats and cows and helpful neighbors abound. Lovely rural landscapes. Nettles and hay.

The Moon is Jewish examines the life of a young man who was once a Polish skinhead soccer fanatic, dedicated to brawling with black and Jews—not to mention fans of the opposing team—but later found out he was Jewish himself. He turns to Orthodox Judaism and applies the same intensity to that “calling” that he once exerted in the name of the home team.

But this film fails to deliver. The soccer fanaticism is only weakly portrayed. (And they never show any soccer!) And our hero’s newfound dedication to Hasidic Judaism seems shallow and only tangentially related to the humanity and compassion one tends to associate with religious conviction.

In short, our hero is a fascist, whether he’s beating up rival soccer fans or cleaning up a hotel restaurant kitchen seeking to meet the requirements of kosher operation. We leave the theater feeling that he likes his new “calling” because it allows him to boss around his wife and children the same way he used to attack fans of the opposing soccer team. Not good.

Meanwhile, Ub Lama offers an avenue of ingress into the lives of poor folk in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. The main character is 12 years old. He’s no good at school, and prefers to sell cigarettes in the local market. His father is dead, and his mother hopes he’ll be accepted as a lama at the local monastery. He listens to rap on TV, and is a pretty good break-dancer. Nothing much happens…Yes, but have you ever been to Ulaanbaatar?

1 comment:

Dana mcdill said...

John, I'm lichen the soil story. Thanks for the tip