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Ela Bittencourt: Biotechnology and Its Human Tragedies in India

By
April 10, 2012

Director Micha X. Peled’s Bitter Seeds is a compelling portrait of families and biotechnology in modern India.

Image from flickr via peo pea


By Ela Bittencourt

Bitter Seeds, by Israeli director residing in the United States, Micha X. Peled, was one of the most fully realized documentaries in the 17th international documentary film festival, É Tudo Verdade (It’s All True), taking place in São Paulo, Brazil (March 22-April 1). The film follows farmers in an Indian village of Telung Takli, which has seen sharp increases in farmer suicides. Young college student Manjusha, who dreams of becoming a journalist, takes on the issue, prompted by personal tragedy. The film crew follows Manjusha as their subject, but as the story develops, she takes on a more active role, her video footage incorporated into the film, subtly honoring her perspective.

The documentary opens with a seed seller arriving in Manjusha’s village. The genetically engineered BT seeds, a product of the American company Monsanto, are being advertised, by itinerant sellers and on television, as yielding more crops and increasing profits. The farmers are skeptical but have no choice: No conventional seeds are sold in the village. Monsanto’s Indian representatives are not forthcoming about the exact differences between their genetically engineered seed and a conventional seed. They deny, for example, that the seed requires more fertilizer. Independent studies have also been restricted, but back in the villages, Manjusha’s and her neighbors’ plight illustrates the havoc that the introduction of the BT seed has wreaked on farming populations. The seed is non-renewable; it does not re-grow and must be purchased each year. It requires just the right amount of water, with entire crops wasted if rain is meager, or abundant.

The story of Manjusha’s neighbor, Ram Krishna, shows just how precarious a farmer’s life can be: Unable to put down a security deposit, Ram Krishna signs away his land, which he may keep only if he repays the loan. But his crop succumbs to the mealy bug—according to one scientist, Dr. Shiva, precisely because the seeds are new to the environment and more vulnerable—and yields only half of what he hoped for, forcing him to beg the moneylender to keep his land, at a staggering interest rate. In Manjusha’s village, loans were once a rarity among farmers. Now, all families get them, repaying what they owe after harvest, often with next to nothing left. The vast majority are denied loans by banks, and must rely on moneylenders.

Peled cites estimates, according to which 90 percent of India’s farmers are paying royalties to Monsanto. The unsustainability of the situation, in which the technologies meant to help farmers have in fact pushed them into the type of agriculture where costs outpace profits, is underscored by the fact that even in the United States, where farmers have far better access to fertilizer and irrigation, the government saves the industry with hefty subsidies. The real and only winner in this equation appears to be Monsanto, whose profits keep rising as the BT seed sales increase in other parts of the world, including Latin America.

While Peled gives ample screen time to both sides of the story, Monsato’s television commercials, brochures, and representatives all begin to sound unnervingly hollow, compared to the human tragedies that unfold in the Indian villages, where male suicides continue, most by drinking the pesticide that was meant to save the crops; all a result of outstanding debts.

Meanwhile, Manjusha is encouraged by the local newspaper to keep interviewing widows. Through her, we enter the intimate world of family rituals and labor. Bitter Seeds emerges as a film about families, and its power lies in wedding facts and testimonies to lyrically rendered portraits. Naturally, those closest to Manjusha are women: her mother, whom Manjusha films as she retells the story of her husband’s suicide; her young friend, Sawpna, whose parents grieve, unable to provide money or goods for her dowry. “Girls,” Sawpna says, “should not be born. They bring too much hardship.” The inability to marry off daughters plunges traditional families into shame and ridicule, deepening financial burdens and the sense that female offspring is undesirable. Simultaneously, India’s young women contribute to the labor force and strive to claim some measure of independence, poignantly expressed in a sign scribbled on a village wall: “Father, don’t marry me off too soon. I will make you proud.”

Although 18-year-old Manjusha’s own father is gone, she turns her personal meditation on family grief into a much larger story, which is eventually published in a local newspaper. By picking Manjusha as his lens, Peled enfolds a local tragedy into a global issue. Complementing the engaging narrative is the often-stunning cinematography. Devendra Golatkar’s camerawork brings out the textural sensuality of the farmers’ environment: the vibrant colors of the bull festival, the radiant faces of young women as they walk the dusty roads in flowing tunics. The stately poetry of the cotton fields speaks for itself, as do the mortified expressions of farmers whose livelihood is endangered. Bitter Seeds is one of those rare films whose storytelling economy is matched by visual eloquence.

Bitter Seeds won the Green Screen competition Award at IDFA, the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. It will next be screened in the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

Ela Bittencourt is a freelance critic and writer. She has written for various publications, including The Brooklyn Rail, Slant, Guernica, The L Magazine, and Reverse Shot. She is currently reporting on the international documentary film festival, É Tudo Verdade, from Sāo Paulo, Brazil.

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