Lately, stories about the Monsanto Protection Act have been all over the news. The provision allows for Monsanto, a major biotechnology company, to plant untested genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that could endanger the environment, even if the legal system objects. This news has created controversy among environmental and agricultural activists, and it is amidst this controversy that Micha Peled’s documentary Bitter Seeds screened as part of Stranger Than Fiction.
Bitter Seeds follows villagers in India who are encountering a significant crisis: farmers, who have seen their crops and finances destroyed by the integration of genetically modified seeds, are committing suicide in vast numbers. In an effort to uncover the reasons why the farmers are ending their lives and what can be done to stop it, a young aspiring journalist named Manjusha travels around her village, interviewing farmers and their families about their experiences. The film profiles Manjusha and her uncle, Ram Krishna, one of the farmers struggling with depression and financial issues. The personal stories of Manjusha and Ram Krishna are interspersed with interviews with Monsanto executives and environmentalists, offering a diverse array of perspectives on the controversy. At a time when stories about the actions and effects of Monsanto could not be more relevant, Bitter Seeds puts a human face on the situation.
After the screening, Peled spoke with STF’s Thom Powers about the filmmaking process and the adventures that have occurred during Bitter Seeds‘ international screening tour.
Stranger Than Fiction: Micha, can you share some of the experiences you’ve had showing this film in other parts of the world? I’m particularly interested if you’ve had the experience of showing it in India yet.
Micha Peled: Yeah, actually, this film has been on four continents. I’ve traveled with it from Brazil to South Africa, to Jerusalem, to Hanoi, and I found out that basically everywhere people have the same kinds of questions, the same kinds of reactions. People are concerned about our GMOs everywhere. There are stories of Monsanto from practically every country I’ve been to, with one variation or another.
But going to India, to the region where the film was made, was the most incredible film tour I’ve ever done. I was with two other people, local people who were hired for this task, and we traveled with a mobile movie projector, a big white sheet, and two wooden poles. Every afternoon, we’d arrive to another village and set up in front of the temple. There was a huge green tarp that people sat on. We had a truck with a loudspeaker that would travel through the village announcing that there would be a film screening right after dark. And, you know, it was amazing to consider that most of these people had never seen a film on a large screen in their lives. I don’t know where the nearest cinema is, but I’d guess it’s in Nagpur, which is three hours away by bus, and when they go to Nagpur, they go because they have some urgent business. They don’t go there to see a movie. They’ve seen films on television, but those are Bollywood films. I don’t think they’d ever seen a documentary. They’d certainly never seen a film about themselves. So it was incredible on many levels.
We also discovered that we were losing the women early in the evening. I started questioning that, because why wouldn’t the women stay? There are certainly a lot of female characters here. It turned out that the women were not comfortable sitting next to men after dark. They needed their own separate space. And the only way to solve that, under these conditions, was to put the screen in the middle of the square, and the women sat on the other side of the screen. They saw the film flipped. The only things that really impacted were the subtitles, but they weren’t reading those anyway, because obviously the film speaks their language. The parts that were in English, we had somebody speak into a microphone and translate it every night. I did it in collaboration with Kishor Tiwari, who is the farmer activist you see in the film, the one who organizes the rally towards the end.
But, you know, it was a huge success every night until the final night. The final night, we got to the village where the film is set, and I went to the family of Ram Krishna and Sunanda, and they were cordial as they were hosting me, but I could tell that they were tense. I told them that I had good news, which was that I was bringing them some money donated by viewers in America who wanted to help them, but still they remained tense. In the meantime, Manjusha and her mother came, and I set out to call for the old man who’s in the film who I liked so much, and all of these people seem happy to see me, but Ram Krishna and his wife are tense.
Why were they tense? “There’s a problem,” they say. What’s the problem? Well, you saw in the credits at the end that their daughter did get married. There’s something there that I didn’t reveal, because I didn’t think it was important to the film, which is that the family that she married into is actually the family that you see in the dowry negotiation scene. Later on, they worked out a more affordable arrangement, and I was able to help them, but that wasn’t what I wanted you to think about at the end of the film.
Well, you remember that there’s a scene when the mother is consoling the daughter when the arrangement initially fell through, and she says, “That boy looked like a monkey?” (laughter) This is a powerful family in the village. The father-in-law gets contracts from the government to do road construction, and he hires some of the neighbors every year. So I said, “You know what? I understand your position, and for the first time in my illustrious career, I will self-censor my own film. We will fast-forward through those two scenes, because I understand it’s embarrassing to you.”
So I thought we had resolved it. An hour later, as it was getting dark, a huge crowd had gathered, and the head of the village council comes and says, “The problem is not resolved. The son-in-law demands that there will not be a film showing, or he will send his wife and their baby back to her parents.” So I was incensed. What does she have to do with any of this? And you can just imagine how hard it was for Ram Krishna. They are still in debt from this wedding from two years ago. So you can imagine how hard it would be for them if their daughter were to be returned.
So, I demanded to see the daughter’s husband. I’d never met him. He always sends emissaries. I did see him at the wedding, but I’d never exchanged a word with him. So we finally go to see him, and he’s there among his cronies, and it’s getting dark. I say to him, “Look, your wife signed a release form to be in this film. Her parents signed a release form to be in this film.” And he says, “But I didn’t sign anything.” And I said, “That’s right. You are not in the film.” (laughter) I said, “If you interfere with this lawful screening of the film, I’m going to go to the nearby police station and report you.” Everyone there knows that the police will act for whomever pays the most, and nobody wants to go against the foreigner, of course.
Well, I didn’t have to wait for the translation of the word “police” – all mayhem broke loose. There were shouts and a declaration that “the girl will pay the consequences.” And so I said, “Look, we’ve all heard that you are threatening domestic violence, and if anything happens to her, we are all witnesses to that.”
I marched back to the square, and all of these people are there, and the head of the village council says, “Well, let’s do the ceremony and we’ll see.” They did an elaborate ceremony and gave me all these gifts and a poster that said, “Best Friend of Vidarbha 2012,” and I gave an emotional speech. Then Kishor yelled, “Who wants to see the movie?” And, of course, everybody there raises their hand, because this whole controversy only got them more curious, and we started the film.
Now, I have to tell you what happened. Two minutes into the film, we meet Manjusha. It’s the very beginning and she introduces herself and says, “Three farmers in my village killed themselves and I want to know why.” They fast-forwarded through it. I ran to the guy holding the remote and asked, “What the hell is going on?” He says, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, mistake, mistake.” I should not have trusted him. I should have stayed there. But I didn’t. I let them start again. Two minutes later, Sunanda is introduced, and she talks about how she was married to her husband, Ram Krishna, and how upset she was when her first baby was a daughter, and so forth. They again fast-forward through it. I ran over again and grabbed the remote, and inadvertently, as I grabbed the remote, I pulled the cord of the projector, and the pin got stuck inside and broke, and there was no screening.
So I wish I had a better ending to the story, but that’s what happened. Kishor later explained to me that he had told the operator to fast-forward because, when Sunanda is talking about her marriage to Ram Krishna, she also blurts out a sentence that is not subtitled, where she says that Ram Krishna’s parents did not demand any dowry of her parents, because they were all so poor. Kishor believed that this would be embarrassing to the daughter’s husband’s family, because they demanded such a big dowry from Ram Krishna. So he thought, “Let’s make peace and run through it,” but he didn’t inform me so I was upset. So that was the end of that. But it was the most amazing film tour I could ever have expected to have.
Audience: How did you find Manjusha?
Peled: Well, in all of my films, it’s important for me to have central characters to carry the story. The specific topic is less important; issues are a dime a dozen. So I arrived in this area, and I’d never been in Vidarbha before in my life; I don’t speak a word of Marathi; there are 23,000 villages there, so I didn’t know where I was going to shoot the film. I started traveling and going to villages and introducing myself to the heads of the village councils. I asked them to gather farmers to tell me their stories, and I would sit and hear the tales of woe of the farmers. And I quickly realized that most of them were like Ram Krishna – they were taciturn, depressed, you know, not the kind of people you’d hang a whole film around. You guys wouldn’t want to sit here for an hour and a half and just watch someone like that. But many of them also commented on the fact that their neighbors who had committed suicide also had daughters of marrying age that they could not afford to marry. And that social shame of a man not fulfilling his duty to his daughter is what tipped them over the edge.
So I started traveling to the high schools and introducing myself to the principals – you always have to go through the hierarchy, it’s very important there. And within a half an hour, I would be speaking with a group of senior class girls. They were two or three months from being eligible to get married, and one of my questions was always, “What are your dreams for your future?” And many of them would say, “I would like to continue my studies, but of course it’s up to my parents.” What they would mean was that they wanted to become a nurse or a teacher. But one day, one girl says, “I want to become a journalist.” Of course, my ears perked up, and I asked her why. And she said, “I want to tell the world about the crisis of the farmers.” So that’s how I met Manjusha.
Audience: Was your cinematographer female or male?
Peled: Do you want to guess before I tell you?
Audience: I don’t know. Male?
Peled: I went through a few cinematographers. The first one was highly recommended to me by Western filmmakers. He’d won awards and was a very nice guy, but what he knew was wildlife. So the first day of shooting, we were going to film Ram Krishna and Sunanda having a conversation. I said to the cinematographer, “Why don’t you set it up?” The way he set it up was he had them both sit on the couch, he put the camera on the tripod right in front of them, dead center, made sure that everything was in focus and the exposure was right, everything was good. And then he said, “Speak!” And they were supposed to have their natural conversation. So he was a nice guy, but I didn’t bring him back.
Then I thought, “Maybe a female cinematographer would do better connecting with the female characters in the film.” So I brought somebody from Calcutta. Again, highly recommended, but she didn’t speak the local language and had some other difficulties, and she wasn’t the right choice either.
The guy who got the credit as the main cinematographer was a young guy, only three or four years out of film school – Devendra Golatkar. He’s Marathi, he speaks the language, and he has a very wonderful eye for composition. He, like practically every Indian cinematographer that I encountered, doesn’t listen. He thinks that’s the job of the sound operator. So he really had to be trained to pay attention to the conversation to know when to film the listener or the speaker and so on, but I really loved the images he created.
Audience: Have you worked with any organizations to get this film in front of Congress?
Peled: Yeah. Last year, we did an outreach campaign, and there were 175 public screenings of this film, free screenings by community groups. Some of them had very much a legislative edge to them. In California, we had Proposition 37 to label GMOs, so screenings were organized in connection to that. All over the country, local activists organized screenings. In fact, this weekend, there’s going to be Earth Day on Saturday, and there’s a big public celebration at a park in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and the film will show there as part of the Minnesota Right to Know Campaign. So we’ve done quite a lot of that. We’re also doing educational outreach. The film is shown in a lot of schools. I’ve been touring universities with it, and so forth.