VIFF docs expose the dark side of corporate America


Bitter Seeds documentary
From Bitter Seeds, Teddy Bear Films,

In Bitter Seeds, Micha X. Peled reveals an appalling statistic: a farmer in India commits suicide every half-hour. The documentary, showing at the Vancouver International Film Festival (September 27-October 12), puts a human face on this ongoing tragedy with its intimate portrait of a poor farming community in India’s interior. Most of India’s cotton farmers now use seeds manufactured with Monsanto’s proprietary Bollgard technology. “BT means big buds,” say the sales people, waving their pamphlets. But, for farmers, it also means the risk of a large financial outlay, punitive interest rates on loans, low yields and dependence on Monsanto seeds, which are genetically modified to terminate at the end of each year.

The film follows a young female student journalist from the village, whose father killed himself, as she seeks answers to this epidemic of suicides. We also meet a father of three, with desperation in his eyes, who mortgages his three acres to take the GMO cotton gambit. Crisp visuals evoke the day-to-day rigours of impoverished, but peaceful, village life, as well as the underlying strain today’s global agro-economy is placing on small farmers.

With similar themes, Swiss documentary Bottled Life focuses on Nestlé’s water business. A multi-national corporation profiting from commodification of a free resource levers the law to push aside local resistance to its projects while currying favour with lawmakers through a PR blitz. The globetrotting doc offers fascinating insights into Nestlé’s modus operandi, from its unquenchable thirst for water rights to the launch of “fashionable,” bottled water brands into markets in Pakistan, Nigeria and North America. Director Urs Schnell, who can be heard occasionally, should have narrated himself instead of using an English-speaking actor for voice-over and he talks too much about he was stonewalled requesting an interview. Stylistic quibbles aside, this has some strong material and it is a good news story about how one community successfully stood up to Nestlé when its aquifer was threatened.

Corporate America is again under fire in We’re Not Broke, one of a clutch of films at VIFF capturing recent citizen unrest in the US. Corporate America, from Apple to Pfizer, is a big tax dodger, siphoning profits offshore and often paying zero or negative US tax. Snappy editing of media images, activist actions and expert commentary shows how the richest multinationals have moved the goal posts. Highly watchable, with memorable lines like “If you take Bermuda out of the equation, $100 gets knocked off Google’s share price.”

In Krisis, 14 photojournalists offer visually rich perspectives from different ends of the political spectrum on the current socio-economic breakdown in Greece. While illuminating, with so many voices, the story lacks an anchor and it’s difficult to appreciate where the talked of “renaissance” will come from. Maybe that’s where Velcrow Ripper’s Occupy Love (previewed in March) comes in?

The Invisible War is a searing indictment of the US military’s stance on the systemic problem of rape, which has been ignored and suppressed by the top brass. Worse than that, serial rapists have been allowed to strike repeatedly within the closed system of the military, while victims who have stepped up have felt the full force of institutionalized indifference and prejudice bear down on them. An incredible exposé.

Very different is Survival Prayer, a meditative piece with extreme close-ups and lingering shots that records the characters, native rituals and myths on Haida Gwaii. Foodies will appreciate the focus on foraging and watching salmon being caught, gutted, hung, dried and smoked the traditional Haida way.

Robert Alstead writes at

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