Micha X Peled, US-based Israeli filmmaker, has won 22 international awards for his globalisation trilogy, the last of which was a film on farmer suicides in Vidarbha, Bitter Seeds. He was recently in Vidarbha to screen the film in the village where it was shot, Tailang Takdi in Yavatmal, the heartland of farmer suicides. He talked to Aparna Pallavi. Excerpts
Why a film on Vidarbha farmers?
My globalisation trilogy is a kind of going back in the supply-production chain. The first, Store Wars: When Walmart Comes to Town, focused on the retail giant and the consumption pattern in the US, the second film China Blue moved back to the garment factories in China. From there it was a logical move to Vidarbha, which exports much of its cotton to China’s garment factories. Vidarbha is now the world capital of suicide, whereas it has been a prosperous cotton-growing region for centuries. In the past 15 years everything went wrong and no one seems to know why.
Did you get answers while filming?
The basic problem is seeds, though I do not wish to oversimplify. There are factors like culture, governance, artificially lowered prices because of the US’ subsidies to its own farmers. But seeds seem to stand out. Many farmers told me they no longer have any choice regarding seeds—they are all GM.
What are the drawbacks of GM seeds?
They require lots of fertiliser, and without water the fertiliser does not get absorbed. Ninety per cent farmers do not have irrigation, and the climate is not appropriate for GM. Then there is the cost: just the seeds cost four times the ordinary ones. Also fertilisers and pesticides require huge investments. Ninety per cent farmers I met had not paid the bank loans they had taken earlier. What I saw is that this situation forces farmers to gamble on all they have. They are farmers, not casino players. They are not equipped to survive through such high-stake speculations.
Do farmers feel the same way?
They do not have a solution in sight. I cannot understand why the government has failed to see the danger. This is more than a humanitarian issue; it is a question of national security. The government has allowed Bt cotton to monopolise the seed market. The entire cotton farming industry is in Monsanto’s hands. If it decides to pull out, what will happen to three million farmers, the textile industry and a key export?
Are farmers aware of all this?
One cannot expect them to get the big picture, but they do sense the danger. They blame government, low prices and absence of irrigation facilities, but not many say positive things about BT cotton. In fact, most see it as the culprit behind the suicides. Some even called it the “killer seed”.
Is the picture so despondent?
Not all despondent. Some farmers do speak of returning to farming the way their grandfathers did. Conventional seeds cost so less and require so little inputs that they feel even a smaller harvest would keep them afloat. I met some farmers who are cultivating organic cotton. I invited them to donate seeds in the village. But things are not that easy. When the organic farmers told the people in Tailang Takdi that they must leave their farms fallow for three years to make the land free of chemicals, their faces fell. They could not afford that. Government intervention is needed in many ways: subsistence subsidy during the transition, creating profitable market linkages and seed sourcing. But it can be done. Across the world the market for organic cotton is high.
You talked of cultural factors that exacerbate the crisis …
I am not here to criticise the culture and customs. I only take the narrow view of factors that hamper farming success. The first is dowry. My film’s protagonist Ramakrishna has a daughter of marriageable age, but like others he cannot afford a “respectable” dowry. I was told that such situation leads to suicide at times. The second thing is there could be a far more united community of farmers if they were not divided along caste and sectarian lines.
Your experience while filming.
Working within an all new milieu, I had to navigate through culturally sensitive issues. The film follows the protagonist’s family over a period of time—from start of the farming season, over the entire obstacle course of getting the produce to the market, and coming back home. It also threads in the story of Manjusha, the daughter of a neighbour who committed suicide. She wants to be a journalist so she can tell people the reality, and the film follows from her first steps till she achieves success. To achieve that I had to ensure the same people cooperated with me each time I came back over a period of two years.
The second issue was cooperation from Monsanto. In the US, very few films have been made on Monsanto because it does not have a policy of cooperating with independent media. For me it was important to get the view from the other side. I tried for a whole year without success, but on the last day of filming in Mumbai, I got an interview with a Monsanto official.
Any interesting anecdotes?
There were many challenges and touching moments. One incident stands out. Originally, we were going to make a film in a different village, with a different family as the protagonist. I really liked a farmer’s daughter; she was smart, ambitious and pretty. Every viewer would have rooted for her success. Everything was hunky dory but at the last moment they balked for fear no one would marry a girl from the movies. I explained it was a documentary and the girl would not be taken out of the village or filmed alone, but in vain. Turned out the father was worried that American film tag will send dowry demands shooting, since people will assume he got paid a lot.
Reasons for coming back for screening.
The head of the local farmers’ organisation told me many filmmakers have come through Vidarbha, but I am the first to show the film to the farmers. The reasons were that I felt indebted to them and I was curious about their reaction.
What were the farmers’ reactions?
Intense. There were knowing chuckles in the scene where Manjusha, the budding journalist, finds the claims in the seed brochures, including the phone numbers of satisfied farmers, are phoney. The reaction to the scene where Ramakrishna finds what price his harvest fetches got heightened reactions.
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