Features | Agrarian Utopias/Dystopias: The New Nonfiction

By Robert Koehler

In the brave new world of films that have escaped from the categories of “narrative” and “documentary,” the matter at hand isn’t one of—to use another quotable word—“reality.” Indeed, the shattering of the simpler notions of reality is a crucial function of these films, since they’re in part expressions of doubt that any firm grasp on the real is even remotely possible. Rather, the issue in its most direct sense concerns what is recorded visually and audibly. And it’s beyond the old Robert Flaherty/Nanook of the North (1922) dilemma of pre-arranged nonfiction. Given that there’s no objective reality and that the scientifically observational field film has been quite consciously re-examined under the Heisenbergian notion that the only reality that exists is that which can be observed, and further, allowed to be affected by intentional subjectivity, the zone of a cinema free of, or perhaps more precisely in between, hardened fact and invented fiction permits all manner of wild possibilities. Starting with Lisandro Alonso’s game-changing La Libertad (2001), which served up a tale as well as a document of woodcutter Misael, we have been living through an incredible period for the cinema of in-between-ness.

This tendency is clearly a byproduct of our collective hyperconsciousness regarding cinema and its effects, so that the filmmaker knows that the audience knows the tricks the filmmaker is playing, and that intention is written in high relief. For better or worse, such a practice is flagrantly on display in films that slip from document to drama and back again such as José Luis Torres Leiva’s The Time That Rests (2007) (Fredrick Wiseman blended with an attempt at poetry), Vincenzo Marra’s The Session Is Open (2006) (the courtroom drama without heroics), and Asger Leth’s The Ghosts of Cité Soleil (2006) (garish social realism runs headlong into a Wyclef Jean promo reel). What has emerged in recent years, however, is that this kind of cinema practice is being specifically applied to subjects about humans working on the surface of the earth. Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s sprawling four-hour global project, Elsewhere (2001), filmed in 12 remote regions over 12 consecutive months, was one of the first highly developed examples of this type of film, capturing the lives of people from Lapland to Micronesia who live with one foot in the 21st century and one foot in the 12th. Agricultural activities dominate these films, from Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread (2005) to a slew of independent Chinese works such as Feng Yan’s heartbreaking film about subsistence farmers coping with changes on the Yangtse River, Bing Ai (2007), to Yu Guangyi’s savagely direct duo of films about the most marginalized labourers of the earth imaginable, Timber Gang (2007) and Survival Song (2008). On the most modernist side of this tendency, Uruphong Raksasad collected fragments of his rural northern Thai land and its workers in Stories from the North (2005), which incorporated the sort of pre-arranged scenes and sequences that he plays out elaborately in his extraordinary new Agrarian Utopia, which provides the ideal, ironical title for the aspirations, recognitions, and realities of these filmmakers.

What does it mean, for example, when filmmakers—specifically cultural anthropologists, sensory ethnographers and photographers—place individual sound mics on the animals they’re filming in order to get the right kind of sound? If the sound is emerging from a different spot than where the camera is filming, is this, in a sense, staging? Or is it a more precise kind of use of sound in a documentary-type filmmaking setting? Or something else? The fact that Lucien Castaing-Taylor, director of Harvard’s Film Study Center and Sensory Ethnography Lab, and Ilisa Barbash, curator of Visual Anthropology at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, went to such extremes for the sound element alone in their film, Sweetgrass, illustrates the deliriously obsessive activity behind this monumental and often quite funny film about sheep and the men who herd them in Montana’s craggy backcountry. First and foremost an anthropological work of art, the film is not, strictly speaking, directed. Castaing-Taylor identifies himself as “recordist,” which points to a much larger issue that these films, including Sweetgrass, open up regarding representation and observation. Led by the decades-long example of James Benning, artists such as Geyrhalter and fellow Austrian Peter Schreiner have snatched up the scientific field film and transformed it. In Our Daily Bread, the observed motion of agricultural machinery is nothing if not choreographic, while Schreiner’s Bellavista (2006) turns the Alpine town of Sappada into a surreal landscape in which time frequently seems to stop altogether, and one’s sense of place is radically unhinged. Even ostensibly narrative films such as C.W. Winter and Anders Edström’s The Anchorage (winner of the Filmmaker of the Present prize at this year’s edition of the Locarno film festival), which tells of some select days in the life of a woman living on a Swedish island and her encounters with family and one looming stranger, is explicitly inspired by the field film tradition, even as the results nestle in the twin embraces of ancient myth and Jean Epstein. These films drift away from “documentary,” toward perhaps what might be labelled a “nonfiction feature,” but even then, the label fails to stick, because the fiction appears to be nonfictional (as in much of The Anchorage) and vice versa (as in Bellavista). This deliberately contradictory nature is a fundamental part of these films’ essence. If any finding is made at all, it is that the categories are finally quite pointless.

Look on the web and find that Sweetgrass has already been categorized. It makes for funny reading: At one website, the labels read thusly: “landscape, realism, video art, installation, digital, sheep, farming, anthropology, film.” The words absurdly smack up against each other, a crash of labels. Yet this list does begin to describe some of the content of Sweetgrass, and speaks to the impossibility of slotting it. “The sheep movie,” as it was known first in the Berlinale Forum. That’s the best that can be done for it in that regard, but not in regard to the film’s political dimensions. For in Sweetgrass, as well as Agrarian Utopia and Eugenio Polgovsky’s Los Herederos (2008), the guiding force behind these representations of working on the surface of the earth is an overwhelming sadness at the process of collapse and the end of things, alongside the unspoken drama of human beings stuck in a cycle with no escape. The politics is therefore immensely angry, and more forceful due to the filmmakers/recordists’ refusal to announce their anger in literal means. The closest Uruphong comes to underlining his economic point is in the first line spoken in Agrarian Utopia, when a subsistence farmer laments how, “It’s always easy to get a loan, but paying it back is another story.” In general, the moral burden of the political ideas is borne purely by the cinema acts of watching and listening.

Uruphong takes his politics pretty seriously, as the opening and closing minutes of Agrarian Utopia demonstrate. Local Thai pols are viewed doing their dog-and-pony acts on the hustings, familiarly splitting their time between attacking their opponents and making promises. Nothing agrarian here, but Uruphong is simply planting the seeds for thoughts that will flower during and at the end of his film. As seen most recently in the US, politicians the world over habitually propose utopias, believing perhaps correctly that this is what voters want to hear. Uruphong’s camera and microphone don’t make these pols seem like fools so much as actors playing roles in a public game, a game in which the public is all too willing to join. This is a radical ploy for the beginning of a film that’s supposed to be about how men form a temporary enterprise to farm rice with traditional methods. But the aim is to contrast human lows and highs; in his statement, Uruphong ranks agriculture “among mankind’s most noble professions,” a sentiment set off by the ignoble performances of the politicians. (His parents were farmers, until, as he explains, “The bank had taken almost all our lands.”)

But roles are also reversed. What Uruphong doesn’t want to explain to his audience, and which will surely piss off the dullards in the crowd, is that the actual performers in the film are the men playing at being farmers. Moreover, they are playing roles in a utopia staged by Uruphong in a gorgeous spot in his native northern Thailand, near the Laotian border, hugged by mountains on one side and a decaying Buddhist temple on the other. Since pre-industrial rice farming is virtually extinct in this rich agricultural region, known as one of Southeast Asia’s great breadbaskets, Uruphong had to rent the plot of land where he filmed for a year, and cast people from the region in roles ranging from the indebted farmers compelled to work a neighbour’s plot to the landowner who believes in a kind of wild, organic method of letting things grow where they may. (The “artifice” of the story regularly slips away, as when the actors playing the farmers refer to the landowner as “Professor,” the actor’s real-life profession.) Perhaps they are working for a crazy man, but the farmers work the land the old-fashioned way, patiently recorded by Uruphong, as only the son of a farmer could.

Agrarian Utopia is very often a recording, in the Castaing-Taylor sense, and if one is able to watch it, Sweetgrass, and Los Herederos together (or as together as festival viewing will allow), it becomes clear that the act of recording is one of mankind’s other noble professions. Recording, to be clear, isn’t meant in this sense as a mechanically minded placement of camera and sound equipment, and a switching of the machines to the “on” and “off” positions. Rather, it imposes a distanced perspective and discipline on the filmmaking, married to a consciousness of the observer and a deliberation to bring the viewer in line with what the recorder sees and hears. There’s an extraordinary moment in Sweetgrass when the camera gradually zooms from an ultra long-shot of a ridge of the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains to a detail of that ridge, revealing at first a vague movement, then what looks like a river cascading down the ride’s steep slope, then the initial details of a sheep herd and then to the individual sheep, moving along the slope in a steady unending flow. The movement of the animals is indeed “recorded,” and the geographic context in which they’re moving is fully captured; the mechanics of the zoom even suggests the impersonal nature of the surveillance camera targeting a subject of interest (and, in this case, the further suggestion of a hunter eyeing its prey). But the shot, like so many in Sweetgrass, is transformed by selection through recording: The beginning fascination with the Absaroka-Beartooth’s spectacularly craggy, sculptural topography, shifts invisibly to a deliberate focus on the pure strangeness of a sheep herd’s resemblance to other natural patterns, from avalanches and the sliding sands on a dune to the steady train of ants on the move. A beauty consumes the screen; the scientifically observed morphs into art.

This happens regularly in all three films, with entirely different effects. At one point in the early phases of the Professor’s establishment of the farming project, a large, elongated wooden board is pushed bit by bit across the field of grain by a farmer, the sea of grain pushed over and then down, finally flattened. Uruphong records it as a kind of painting in motion, but also as a dance. So does Polgovsky, but in his case, he dances alongside his subjects. From 2001 to 2003, Castaing-Taylor and Barbash visited Montana to record the Allestads, the Norwegian American sheepherding family, and other herders (like Yu’s logging group in Timber Gang, the last of their kind, as a closing credit explains that sheepherding ended in the region in 2003); Polgovsky spent two years travelling to remote, extremely poor rural zones in the Mexican states of Guerrero, Nayarit, Oaxaca, Sinaloa, Puebla, and Veracruz, and, like he did in his first film, Tropic of Cancer (2004), closely followed his desperately poor subjects wherever they went. In this sense, and this sense only, he adheres to the cinéma vérité principle in which the subject’s actions determine the mise en scène. Because he’s interested in how the kids of the most marginalized farmers work and live, and how they blend living with work, Pogolvsky runs and jumps and scampers behind and alongside the kids—like the sheep, seemingly in constant motion, but at about five times the speed—turning the process of laborious drudgery into play. This creates a strange effect when watching Los Herederos, which, of the triplet of these films, contains the most unmistakable critique of current political and economic conditions for those who work the earth. (Margarita Zavala, the wife of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, attended its world premiere at the 2008 Morelia film festival, and as the lights came up, all eyes accusingly stared at her.) However, the film dovetails critique with sheer pleasure, a joy in movement, the way kids can turn anything into fun. Pogolvsky is a smart fellow, able to keep seemingly separate ideas in his mind at the same time: Behind the camera, he plays alongside the kids, his camera a kind of toy, but also a tool demanding that attention must be paid. He extends the tradition of Latin American cinema’s history of socially committed documentary once dominated by figures like Fernando Solanas, and takes gravely his role as a recorder and witness, then filters it through a feeling of palpable exhilaration of personal filmmaking at its most mobile and athletic.

This collision of emotions—anger and pain from one side, happiness and pleasure from the other, so often contrived in the sort of “dramatic” film favoured by American documentary directors aiming for Sundance, yet here so organic to the material that it never seems mannered—pops up in a similar way during moments of Agrarian Utopia, as when the camera races behind farmers’ kids fooling around in the rice paddy mud, but it reaches an apotheosis during the final unexpected section of Sweetgrass. For several long, leisurely passages, Castaing-Taylor and Barbash relay their wonderment at the sight of contemporary American sheepherders living like 19th century cowboys, sweating it out under arduous conditions that include scrambling up unstable inclines to retrieve stray sheep. Only when they’re seen pulling out their walkie-talkies or cell phones is the viewer jolted back into our time—the film had already established such anachronisms, the best being an unforgettable wide shot of a sheep herd marching down the middle of a small town’s deserted main street, but the action is still a shock. The recording keeps rolling, and one cell call from a herder to his mother is overheard, and, then, a further shock: The cowboy image of imperturbability is shattered as he describes, on the verge of tears, why the life he knows is falling apart. “It’s miserable up here. This is bullshit mom. I’m runnin’ my guts out. My dog’s so sore-footed he can’t walk! My knee’s so screwed up! My knee’s hurtin’. My dog won’t even leave camp! I can’t even get him to go with me…It’s so goddamn rough that you kill a horse—I mean my horse is ribs and bones. Yeah. I’m just ridin’ the shit out of him…Whenever I walk, it pops. Just like breakin’ a branch. It don’t hurt, it just grinds. But it’s going to hurt if I keep this shit up…I’d rather enjoy these mountains rather than hate them, and it’s getting to that point: I’m just hatin’ it.”

A key scene of Sweetgrass revolves around this monologue, but it’s presented ironically, with the herder’s lament heard against a majestically slow right-to-left pan across a mountain vista that tourists to Montana would kill for. Editing of a different sort plays heavily as well into Polgovsky’s conception, infusing sequences of Los Herederos with a rhythmic pulse that feels inspired by Dziga Vertov. The intrinsic humour of recording sheep being sheep, or Polgovsky’s choices of montage cadence and dancing camera, or Uruphong’s taste for the absurd by juxtaposing a nutty grow-your-own vision against the difficult demands of indebtedness—none of these strategies soften the harshness of what these labourers of the soil must endure. That the sheepherders, the rice farmers, and the kids are viewed against typically gorgeous landscapes, even what some might imagine as paradises on earth, only exacerbates the difficulty of their situations; yet the juxtapositions, tinged with bitterness, are never ostentatiously presented. The political realities behind their particular forms of labour are also extraordinarily different, and they produce different conclusions: Like a lot of jobs in America, the sheepherders’ gigs simply go away; like too many in Mexico, the kids have inherited their parents’ plight of working land they will never be allowed to own; like other rural Thais, the men play-acting as rice farmers wander back to the city, where the politicians continue blathering on. This is a world now infused with stultifying familiarity, so that the gap between utopia and actuality remains, like the seasons cycling back to the same starting point, with no real way out.