26 February, 2010

"Agrarian Utopia"

Thursday night, and another Europa League match - Galatasaray playing Atletico Madrid at home in Istanbul. But tonight i'm not watching the game. A screenwriting classmate - a kindred spirit who just returned from backpacking in Colombia - has told me about !f International Independent Film Festival, playing for the next four days at an Ankara multiplexes. Not only is "Food, Inc." leading off Thursday's lineup - another Thursday title is instantly riveting (though i might be the only person in the world who would call this a riveting title) - "Agrarian Utopia". A little online research and it looks like a must see.

For someone studying both sustainable agriculture and film, marriages of the two are a rare and delightful find. (A special nod to friend Bennett Konesni, who traveled the world in 2005-6 to produce "WorkSong", a thirty minute documentary of musical work traditions in Mongolia, Tanzania, and Ghana, and who will probably dig this film on all the levels i do.) Independent film and ecological farming are in some ways alike - both are labors of love, deeply tied to personal vision; both yield unpredictable harvests and at times the merest of extrinsic rewards. Yet the social and technological aspects of subsistence and cinema could not be more disparate.

Here the contrast is particularly ironic: most of the !f screenings take place at a cinema on the top floor of CEPA (pronounced JEPA), one of at least five four-plus-story mega-malls in Ankara. Thousands of white lights cascade from the ceilings; water cascades in thin sheets between glass, and cars and clothes stand loudly mute, preaching their gospel of conspicuous consumption. Waiting for the film to begin, one question nagged - the dialogue would be in Thai, but what language would the subtitles be in? Thankfully - subtitles were in parallel Thai and English, with Türkçe subtitles projected separately below the screen. A lot to take in!

Thai filmmaker Uruphong Raksasad, now 30, spent his childhood in a rural village - and Raksasad carries a strong affinity for the now-disappearing cooperative, rural lifeways he remembers. He refers to the film as a documentary - and the nonprofessional actors' performances are so nuanced, the style of filmmaking so bare-bones that it seems immediate and real. Watching it (unaware of the setup) raises questions about the ethics of documentary film. Though the characters and plot are fictional, Raksasad's method is journalistic; in those scenes where the characters are filmed at actual political rallies, genre distinctions become nonexistent.

In surround-sound, the chorus of frogs, calls of birds, and night punctuated by crickets stirred something deep inside. I felt so much closer to Raksasad's characters than to the engineering and business students around me every day; i craved the feel of wind, rain on my back, the splash of mud. The film brought back long afternoons of work under the open sky - it put me in touch with dreams that i found, as the characters did, untenable in the industrialized world.

CAUTION: SPOILERS. What unfolded in 122 minutes was an austere story to say the least. Two families, forced by debt to leave their own land, begin to work as sharecroppers in a distant village. The yearly cycle of rice farming is depicted in exquisite detail, and the paddies' ecology is itself a character in the film; paddy birds become dinner, as do snakes, rats, ant eggs, and wild honey. Duen and Nuek train a water buffalo to pull the plow while their sons frolic in the paddy pools. Sparse dialogue drives home every source of tension that can be had - a child's materialism, a spouse's stubborn silence. The local landscape is more than setting; it provides an immediate sense of place anchored topographically and psychically by a Buddhist shrine. The shrine stands on a distant hillside throughout the film, at last becoming the center of a scene pitting sacred space against necessity, to emphasize Duen's desperation.

Time-lapse images - monsoon clouds; the whirling dome of stars inlaid with passing electrical storms - add a much-needed visual punch and contribute to the film's documentary style, and wisely, the strongest visuals occur near the end of the film, supporting the slow, deliberate narrative arc. After planting the second year's rice, the young men are informed that their landlord has defaulted on a car loan and has to sell, leaving them no choice but to find work in the city. Well, there is one choice - when eccentric old bachelor Prom offers to let them farm his ample lands - on the condition they use no chemicals. Prom is more than a subtle tip of the hat to eco-farming pioneer Masonobu Fukuoka, describing a "one-straw revolution" method of rice growing. But the young men decide that "...he is one kind of crazy fool - and we are another kind." To quote the film's tag line, how can we dream of utopia while our stomach is still grumbling?

By any standards a long film, the pace of "Agrarian Utopia" would be too slow for many viewers. But that pace follows directly from Raksasad's rural upbringing, and from his documentary style; it is the pace of nature, of handmade life. Never have i seen a film which so completely captured a sense of place. Click here for the trailer.

I left CEPA at midnight, only to find that campus buses don't stop there so late. Thankfully, here even the eight-lane freeway has sidewalks. A mile walk brought me to the Bilkent exit, a crumbling overpass past the new mosque with its scaffolding glinting moonlight. A pack of feral dogs crossed the road ahead of me; uneasy, i stopped to buy döner kebap in a dirt parking lot just off the highway. (The developing world is great. Where else can you find a street vendor open after midnight in a dirt pull-off a mile from three mega-malls?) One customer stood talking to the proprietor: "luckily", this guy was a Bilkent student with a car. But the most fitting fate of the night? This guy, an Iranian student who offers the one lira more i need to buy döner, and agrees to drive me home - is a violinist. Whose specialty is Iranian and Azerbaijani folk music. Are you on facebook? he asks.