Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Let's Spill Some Seed!

If only for the sheer numbers involved, there's a big difference between procreation and propagation. Ironically, two highly specialized San Francisco film festivals allowed audiences to consider how our views of nature's bounty have changed in the past hundred years.

While that change in perspective is partly due to dramatic advances in cinematic technology, it is equally shaped by the growing threat of mass extinction. In man's eagerness to rule over the earth, he has often destroyed natural habitats, disrupted well-established food chains, and poisoned many species. With climate change a looming threat and all-too-real factor in our future, there is less wonder and more fear about how well today's flora and fauna will survive.

Based on the satire published by Voltaire in 1759, Candide was adapted and transformed into an operetta which debuted on Broadway in 1956. The original production featured a libretto by Lillian Hellman, a musical score by Leonard Bernstein, scenery by Oliver Smith, and was directed by Tyrone Guthrie. Its brief 73-performance run introduced "Glitter and Be Gay" (sung by a young Barbara Cook) and included Bernstein's rousing finale, "Make Our Garden Grow."

When one thinks of gardens, among the images that quickly come to mind are flowers and butterflies. Although many people can recognize a monarch butterfly and might be aware that its existence has been threatened by the extensive deforestation and use of pesticides along its migratory path, some forget the transformative process which changes a caterpillar into an adult butterfly.

Compare the life stages of butterflies with the fanciful interpretations that appear in two hand-painted short films released in 1906 that were shown during the 2016 San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

What about plant life? Les Tulipes (1907) and Buona Sera Fiori! (1909) were also screened during the festival.

These short silent films offer sweet and charming depictions of nature that rely on special effects such as classical ballet, stage lifts, fly systems, and some early animation. Compared to what is happening all across our planet as it faces severe ecological challenges, their innocence may be their strongest asset.

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The opening credits of SEED: The Untold Story are so ravishingly beautiful that one wonders if its two director/producers (Taggart Siegel and Jon Betz) were focused on mounting a display of fine art in nature or intentionally hid their documentary's urgent message until viewers had fallen head over heels in love with the film's optics. By the time they move on to discussing the ominous science looming behind the luxurious shapes and colors of their seeds, the creators of such films as The Real Dirt on Farmer John and Queen of the Sun will have captured an audience's attention simply by seducing them with the glory of nature.

Multiple varieties of corn featured in SEED: The Untold Story

Seeds which are spread by the wind are part
of the tale told in SEED: The Untold Story

It's no wonder that some of their talking heads (Vandana Shiva, Jane Goodall) take a rational, fact-based approach to the subject of seed preservation. Their logic is forcefully matched by the passion of seed collectors whose emotional investment in the subject may range from tribal traditions to a fetishistic fascination with plant sex.

Poster art for SEED: The Untold Story

SEED: The Untold Story (which was screened during the 2016 SF DocFest) focuses on botanical issues which have been explored in previous documentaries. These include:
  • The Svalbard Global Seed Vault and seed diversity museums intended to preserve the genetic material contained in the seeds from plants that are nearing extinction.
  • Monsanto's various forms of legal bullying (including filing patent violation lawsuits against farmers whose organic crops have been contaminated with GMO seeds that have been blown onto their land by the wind).
  • The staggering numbers of farmers in India who have committed suicide as a result of crippling debt incurred after being forced to purchase Monsanto's GMO seeds every year.
  • The beauty displayed by plain and variegated seeds under close examination.
A photo captured from SEED: The Untold Story

A scene from SEED: The Untold Story

Despite 12,000 years of plant life providing food and medication to humanity, today's combination of advancing climate change, pesticides that sabotage pollination by honey bees, a staggering loss of crop diversity, legal battles against GMO food labeling, and the patenting and corporate takeover of seeds and food has fueled a perfect storm which has caused 94% of the world's seed varieties to disappear. Despite the passionate efforts of farmers, scientists, lawyers, and indigenous seed keepers to defend the future of our food, biotechnology/chemical companies like Monsanto now control the majority of the world's seeds.

Poster art for SEED: The Untold Story

Although America's popular culture has mythologized Johnny Appleseed, Wikipedia reminds us that:
"John Chapman (September 26, 1774 – March 18, 1845), often called Johnny Appleseed, was an American pioneer nurseryman who introduced apple trees to large parts of Pennsylvania, Ontario, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, as well as the northern counties of present-day West Virginia. He became an American legend while still alive, due to his kind, generous ways, his leadership in conservation, and the symbolic importance he attributed to apples. He was also a missionary for The New Church (Swedenborgian) and the inspiration for many museums and historical sites such as the Johnny Appleseed Museum in Urbana, Ohio and the Johnny Appleseed Heritage Center in between Lucas, Ohio and Mifflin, Ohio."
Variegated ears of corn as seen in Seed: The Untold Story

Think of the huge number of people on this overpopulated planet. Each person's unique characteristics and capabilities are partially due to the genetic material inherited from the man whose sperm impregnated an egg. If 94% of the human sperm available vanished into thin air (or became unavailable due to corporate ownership or forced vasectomies), the future existence of the human race would be in doubt. SEED: The Untold Story explains how a similar phenomenon is taking place in the plant world. Here's the trailer:

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