“You guys will go from last to first,” Dominion Farms CEO Calvin Burgess condescendingly tells a crowd of Kenyans at an outdoor PR carnival in Good Fortune as he pumps up enthusiasm for his American company’s project to turn a swath of the Yala Swamp into a $30 million rice farm. But Dominion’s plan to flood 1100 acres of arable land and construct an irrigation dam takes little account of the area’s farmers who are losing their homes and livelihood; they’re a collateral nuisance. “My life is based on this soil…We don’t want to become [Burgess’s] laborers,” says farmer and schoolteacher Jackson Omondi, one of three citizen protagonists in Landon Van Soest’s documentary who object to the impact that purported anti-poverty programs, devised by foreign corporations or NGOs with the carefully negotiated participation of Kenya’s government, will have on their lives. Are they short-sighted, unwilling to see that the status quo blocks “big-picture” progress in the modernization of Africa’s continental economy? Perhaps, as a Dominion director sunnily puts it, the Yala farmers simply need to see that the submerging of their land provides a golden opportunity for “changing their careers into fishing and other pursuits.”
Lacking any narrator or audible off-camera interrogators, van Soest’s film is occasionally wanting in terms of contextual data and confirmation of the Kenyans’ assertions (e.g. the link between Dominion’s sprayed chemicals and the local incidence of miscarriages). But the crises and dilemmas in the three-part chronicle are informed by the familiar past failings of Western corporate culture and the Kenya regime’s prioritization of profit—along with the nation’s bloody post-election mayhem in 2007, seen here in the final reels. In the capital of Nairobi, where the Kibera slum neighborhood that’s home to one million is being “upgraded” by a joint UN-government effort, a hairdresser threatened with eviction points to local high-rises that were similarly supposed to elevate quality of life for the poor, but were ultimately occupied by the upper class or abandoned amid embezzlement revelations. And in perhaps the most desperate segments, fishing communities on the shores of Lake Victoria are confronted not only by stocks critically depleted by a World Bank-funded export industry and environmental degradation, but the spread of AIDS as increasingly alienated men patronize prostitutes and expose their wives to HIV.
Not merely questioning if a corporate, Western model of aid to Africa can penetrate to the grassroots, Good Fortune sees those most egregiously treated as pawns by outsiders (of varying motives) and domestic powers-that-be as fully aware of their underdog status, and often bleakly resigned to the limits of resistance. “It’s better to leave without a fight,” sighs the Kibera salon owner, even as the film unexpectedly shows Western ingenuity receiving a near-karmic comeuppance in the Yala Swamp.
Good Fortune premieres June 24 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2009. Click here for screening information.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.