Sunday 26 July 2020

Terra em transe: "Landless"

MUBI UK's Brazilian summer - launched earlier this month with the streaming premieres of Breakwater and Good Manners - continues with Camila Freitas's Landless, the kind of documentary that might have sold out any filmmakers' co-operative screening back in the 1980s. Its subject is grassroots political activism; the twist is that the grass is entirely literal. In 2018, shortly after the election of President Bolsonaro, Freitas entered the camp of one regional branch of the Landless Workers Movement, an organisation that gathers up displaced farmers and farm workers to petition for the return of land that has been turned over to agribusiness for use in growing genetically modified crops. What the film harvests there, and brings back to us, is an account of one specific campaign. Freitas begins with the recruitment evenings, at which organisers hear out the farmers' stories; she then follows the collective out into the field(s), watching as they compile a list of demands, put those demands to local landowners, and then dig in waiting for a response, whether in person or through the courts. MUBI may have lined these films up one after another - they follow the platform's early summer release Bacurau - because there's something instructive about this cinéma du Bolsonaro: it suggests what it may still be possible to achieve in the face of a populist government with an apparently impassable majority, what to do when you've had the ground removed from under your feet.

What, then, can the British Left learn from Freitas's film? Firstly, the importance of a unified front, a common cause: having something bigger and more pressing to fight about than whether Jeremy Corbyn was the second coming of Christ or J.K. Rowling is Satan incarnate would be a start. (These side-squabbles are those of concerned citizens who've had the luxury of never having to squabble for land - perhaps as the land was never theirs in the first place.) Second, the need for direct action, even civil disobedience: Freitas shows us the farmers knocking down fences to make their point, occupying fields, blocking roads. When you're up against the proponents of free trade, Landless shows us, it can be an effective form of resistance simply to get in the way, to make a nuisance of yourself. The farmers aren't zealots. The suggestion they should spook the landowners' cattle and torch their crops is met with a genial laughter, some recognition that it's an easy, tempting response, but extreme and unproductive in the long run. Once installed in the fields, some old farming instinct - doubtless passed down from one generation to the next - kicks in. Freitas's subjects would rather cultivate than destroy; they're here to grow, not to slash and burn. (You and I, meanwhile, are reminded of those images of what Bolsonaro licensed big business to do to the Amazon in the months before the Coronavirus took hold.)

For all that growth, Landless remains quite a dry, austere viewing experience. (In this respect, it's not unlike those political documentaries of the Eighties.) Freitas adopts an exclusively observational tack, setting up shop alongside/in solidarity with her subjects, and what she observes is pretty stark and spare: people who don't have very much holding out in faint hope of receiving a little more. There's a long courtroom sequence where the absence of any guiding narration is badly felt (as the farmers themselves confess in a post-hearing confab, no-one can understand what's been ruled); in its midsection, Landless gets bogged down in the fields, waiting for some kind of resolution. Bacurau dramatised a similar stand-off so much more efficiently by having Udo Kier show up in town waving a rifle around. Still, if it makes us work for them, nuggets of useful intel can be gleaned from this soil, as when the teenage daughter of one couple makes the damning connection that the Bayer who'll sell you the toxic chemicals required to grow GM potatoes in bulk is the same Bayer who'll sell you your medication when you get sick from the pesticides. This may be the most salutary lesson Landless has to teach: that any truly effective leftist movement needs to simplify, to tell a story that the vast majority of people can understand, can relate to, and will be prepared to act upon, be that on the streets or at the ballot box. In the British Houses of Parliament, the landowners currently have the numbers. Yet everywhere else - out here in the country - we outnumber them by a factor of at least one hundred. It hasn't for a while - one reason why British democracy is in the sorry state that it is - but that fact alone should rightfully terrify them at night.

Landless is now streaming via MUBI UK.

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