A still from Agrarian Utopia. Image via Extra Virgin.
The "heavenly home in the field" that is the Thai title of the experimental documentary/drama Sawan Baan Naa is increasingly unattainable for the farmers depicted in the the movie, a film-festival success that Variety calls "a promising narrative debut by young helmer Uruphong Raksasad [that] focuses on traditional lifestyles threatened by economic forces."Currently screening at the !F International Independent Film Festival in Istanbul, the movie, called Agrarian Utopia in English, looks at the lives of poor tenant farmers in a northern Thailand village outside Chiang Mai -- the one where director Uruphong was born. Though he moved to Bangkok as a teenager to further his education, the director says he still feels that agriculture "is among mankind's most noble professions" because it "produce[s] food from the soil for direct consumption, while other occupations only produce us income for buying food."
Rice Farmers near Chiang Mai, Thailand
Returning to his hometown, the director hired local farmers to play fictional characters in a story that centers around two families planting rice for a season, working the fields by hand with the assistance of an untrained water buffalo. The film won the UNESCO Award, which "recognizes outstanding contributions to the promotion and preservation of cultural diversity through film," at the third annual Asia-Pacific Screen Awards last fall in Australia.
"The struggle to stave off eviction is punctuated by beautiful footage of rice production at every stage of the process," Richard Kuipers of Variety writes. "The loving eye trained on this traditional method of agriculture will prompt many viewers to think about what actually brings food to the table and ask why market forces in the global food economy are making farmers like Duen and Nuek obsolete."
Is Organic a Way Out?
In addition to lovingly filmed scenes of the area's natural beauty, the aid of a neighboring farmer who tries to help the families increase their self-sufficiency by doing as he has done --- rejecting chemical fertilizers in favor of organic techniques -- comes as a small bright spot in a melancholy film.
"Agrarian Utopia captivates with its stunning visuals and naturalistic acting and by the time it ends, the finale is one of the saddest scenes you will see this year," the !F Festival programmers write. "Not least because you know that every day, in villages all over the world, similar scenes are being enacted and a particular relationship to land and nature is dying."
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Environmental Film Festival Underway in DC