Let's abandon, once and for all, the childish delusion that documentaries are, or should be, objective. Would you spend three to five years of your life making a film about a subject you didn't feel strongly about? Of course not. And if you felt that strongly about a given issue or situation, you'd naturally want to shift the perceptions and attitudes of those less informed. Viewed from this angle, objectivity is a myth and "balance" is a feint whose goal isn't fairness so much as lowering the viewer's guard.
I don't mean to sound cynical; I'm just tired of those who decry Michael Moore (to cite the prime example) for overt and politicized activism while missing the more subtle but equally impassioned activism practiced by the great majority of doc makers. Every doc has a point of view, people. If you can't detect it, you're not paying close enough attention.
I'm afraid I've now poisoned the well (a debating term) with respect to Bitter Seeds, local filmmaker Micha Peled's deliberately and precisely infuriating dispatch from India. (Not that he would disagree with anything I've said, mind you.) This is an important film, and for most Americans a prescient film, and it assuredly takes us to a place and immerses us in a way of life we would not have access to other than through the extraordinary commitment of independent filmmakers. But it's also a film constructed and calculated to have a specific effect on viewers.
The problem that initially caught Peled's attention was an epidemic of farmer suicides in India's cotton-growing region in the last decade. The farmers, whose families have worked the land for generations, had certainly endured droughts, pestilence and low crop prices in the past without being forced over the cliff. What was different now?
Bitter Seeds informs us that the quality of the match that a father can arrange for his daughter is dependent on the size of the dowry he can afford. The inability of a broke farmer to arrange a decent match (or any match) dooms his daughter to a harsh life, and it is the shame of not being able to provide for their daughters that has propelled literally thousands of farmers to take their own lives.
Peled follows one farmer and his family through the cycle of the planting, growing and harvesting seasons, taking care to apprise us of the costs and loans (not to mention the exhausting physical labor) required to produce a crop. He also follows another character, a young woman whose own father committed suicide and who has ambitions of becoming a journalist and reporting about these people who are so often ignored and overlooked.
The key factor in the new and far-from-improved world of Indian cotton, Bitter Seeds lays out, is a kind of genetically modified seed sold by a subsidiary of the U.S. company Monsanto. It is supposedly insect-resistant, which saves the farmer the cost of pesticide, and also produces a higher yield per hectare. However, unlike the "old-fashioned" cotton seeds, which farmers generated for free from their crop each year, Monsanto's seeds must be purchased anew every year. The upshot is that the "organic" cotton, which sustained farmers for centuries, has been rather quickly pushed out in favor of a modified seed that assuredly serves the corporation's monetary interests but not the farmers'.
Bitter Seeds makes its case with carefully measured words that, long before 90 minutes have passed, have provoked an emotional effect on the viewer. This is fiercely effective activist filmmaking, but Peled -- whose widely seen previous films, Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town and China Blue, likewise examined the effects of globalization on everyday people -- want us to recognize that this situation is not limited to India. Monsanto peddles genetically modified seeds in the U.S., as well.
Peled has presented Bitter Seeds at numerous film festivals around the world this year, and he'll be at the Roxie to field questions after certain Friday and Saturday shows. That's an opportunity you don't want to miss.
Bitter Seeds plays October 5-11, 2012 at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco. For more information, visit roxie.com.