Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Simultaneously Seeding, Scything, and Seething

According to an old axiom "As ye sow so shall ye reap." But in today's era of heightened technology, crop cycles can be artificially stimulated. Fertility clinics can help barren couples conceive children.

Whether one looks at fish farming or extremely misguided parenting (does the Duggar family really need all those kids?), the changes in how we view patterns of growth and fertility are reflected in the global economy. Two films recently screened at the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival examined whether (a) farmers can afford to farm, and (b) whether surrogate women can afford to use their bodies as hotbeds of fertility.

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I must admit to having been pleasantly caught off guard by Uruphong Raksasad's documentary about the economic problems facing Thai farmers entitled Agrarian Utopia. Raksasad's film follows two families who face economic ruin. They are already saddled with debt loads they cannot pay, crippling interest rates, and global manipulation of market prices for their crops that makes it impossible for them to continue farming. To make matters worse, the land on which they have lived is being sold out from under their feet, forcing some to return to the city in search of employment.

The one holdout is an aging hippie who owns his own land and farms it for sustenance as opposed to profit. Refusing to use chemicals on his land, he is quick to joke about not needing another wife who will nag him like his first one did. He may be content to live by quietly harvesting honeycomb, mushrooms, frogs, snakes, and rice, but has no interest in getting involved in an economic game he knows he cannot win.

While he remains content on his plot of land, political unrest keeps growing in Bangkok. His offer to let his friends live on his land if they agree to farm only for their sustenance (without using any chemicals) seems very generous. His friends, however, don't think they can adhere to his strict conditions.

In his director's statement, Raksasad explains that:
"I was born a farmer's son, although my parents didn't expect me to farm for a living (they see that it's hard work and earns little). In any case, we can no longer farm for two reasons: one is that the bank has already taken almost all our lands. And second, farming won't help us pay off all our debts in this lifetime. We are not able to live the idealistic Utopian life. We can only do the best we can to get by, that's all.

Modern agriculture is facing problems on many levels, from land ownership to national policy's focus on economic growth and international competition. What are all these for ultimately? Agriculture in Thailand today, and perhaps throughout the world as well, is mostly no longer about household use. It's just another industrial business of trades, with an aim to make money for solving other problems that we caused, directly and indirectly. So farmers now need to focus on productivity by using chemicals and machines. Obviously they put less importance on food safety. With this, Thailand no longer has what it takes to claim to be the granary of the world.

Apart from filmmaking, what interests me to an equal extent is agriculture. I feel it is among mankind's most noble professions. To compare: in agriculture we get to produce food from the soil for direct consumption, while other occupations only produce us income for buying food. I wonder whether all these professions we have in the world (including filmmaking) are really necessary. How much does the world really need them?

I feel that the more we complicate things, the more it produces emptiness and unfulfillment in return, one way or another. I wonder if globalization forces today have become much more powerful than national governments. I don't know where it will take us."
Where Raksasad scores strongly is his ability to capture the beauty of nature through the eyes of the farmers who live in rural Thailand. The teeming chaos of Bangkok can't hold a candle to the glory of watching an electrical storm over long stretches of rice paddies, looking out over the countryside from the serenity of a Thai temple's balcony, or trying to get a stubborn water buffalo to pull a plow.

Sometimes the gold paint that adorns a religious statue can seem like an insult in the face of the poverty that is driving Thai farmers to ruin. And yet, listening to a child's demands for an expensive toy that his father cannot afford has a universality that is at once comical and deeply sad.

Although nearly two hours in length, there are moments in Agrarian Utopia when the magnificent landscapes and cinematography almost camouflage the economic ruin confronting the farmers Raksasad follows in his documentary. Here's the trailer:

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The demand for increased productivity from workers lies at the core of Silver Sling, one of the more unnerving short films in the Futurestates series. With corporations trying to curtail maternity leaves by their female employees, new technology has allowed surrogates to carry an embryo to term through an accelerated three-month gestation.

The economic advantage for the female employee who can't take time off from work is obvious. The disadvantage for the surrogate is that, after participating in three chemically-accelerated gestations, she will become sterile.

In Silver Sling, a Russian immigrant named Lydia (Julia Kots) is torn between wanting to have a child of her own with her devoted boyfriend and needing the money she could earn as a surrogate to bring her younger brother Pasha (Paul Frolov)to the United States from Russia. Lydia's tough emotional shell offers a marked contrast to the quiet nurse (Karen Chilton) who tries to make her rethink her decision.

You can watch Tze Chun's 11-minute film in the following clip. It may, however, make you an ardent supporter of Zero Population Growth.