Bitter Seeds completes director Micha Peled’s “globalization trilogy” by bringing us to the struggling farmers in the cotton fields of India, the beginning of the global production line that he’s traced through his other two films: China Blue, about garment factories that make jeans, and Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town, about the low-price sale of those products. A fusillade of filmmaking activism, this trilogy has roughly and cheaply sketched, with varied skill and complexity, the contours of the human costs in international manufacturing. With Bitter Seeds, these costs are the lives of the farmers who, as the film claims, are committing suicide every 30 minutes not only because Monsanto forces them to buy genetically modified, nonrenewable Bt cotton seeds that are more expensive to maintain than natural ones, but because the U.S. unfairly subsidizes its own cotton industry.
Given the bleakness of the topic, and the grimness of the on-camera corpses, Peled was fortunate to find Manjusha Amberwar, a young and optimistic aspiring journalist who recently graduated school and is doing a story on the recent uptick in suicides, among them her own father. She interviews her uncle, Ram Krishna Kopulnar, about his struggle to grow crops that were sold to him with the false guarantee that they would be resistant to pests and yield higher returns. He says little, but his eyes are stricken with a terror that speaks to an inner paralysis that can be difficult to watch without the buffering effect of his niece’s smiles. He sees no other choice but to play the losing game that Monsanto has brought to his town. Eerily, the camera begins to double as a sort of suicide-prevention device after someone claims the situation he’s in is very similar to that of a man who took his life by drinking Monsanto pesticide—a damning suicide note if there ever was one.
As a documentary made by a director with an agenda as obvious as that of Robert Greenwald, Bitter Seeds can at times feel slightly stagy and predetermined. For instance, Amberwar may be an aspiring journalist, but Peled turns her into one; when he hands her a video camera to take notes with, in a sense he’s helping to create a character that he wants in his movie, which is a sly move because it seems so benign. There’s also a questionable scene toward the end when Kopulnar is negotiating with a loan shark. The scene begins with the camera behind the bushes as if the man has forbidden the crew from filming the interaction, but after a moment we’re brought up close through a series of camera angles that, because they are so intimate without showing his face (there’s even an over-the-shoulder shot), are suggestive, along with the dialogue, of being scripted.
While these faults of the film are disappointing, there’s an important message here concerning, broadly speaking, man’s destructive quest for power—one that, as the omnipresent Vandana Shiva spells out in the film, the farmers themselves may not understand; instead of placing the blame on these larger forces shaping their lives, they blame themselves and take their own lives because of the guilt of not being able to pay back loans and, as we see with Kopulnar, the societal shame from not being able to pay for his daughter’s dowry. If this doesn’t make you want to have your food labeled for GMO ingredients, just remember that Monsanto is also the company that birthed into the world DDT and Agent Orange.
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