San Francisco International Film Fest 2012

'The Anabasis...' and 'Bitter Seeds'

by Cynthia Fuchs

23 April 2012

The search for place, for identity and meaning, produces experiences that become memories, framed by what you know and can't know, what you reject and what you embrace.
From Bitter Seeds (20120) 

Filmmaking and Revolutionary Struggle Were One and the Same

cover art

The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years Without Images

Director: Eric Baudelaire
Cast: Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi

San Francisco International Film Festival: 24 Apr 2012

cover art

Bitter Seeds

Director: Micha X. Peled
Cast: Manjusha Amberwar, Ram Krishna Kopulnar, Vandana Shiva

(Teddy Bear Films)
San Francisco International Film Festival: 24 Apr 2012

I think actually there is only “here”... Wherever you go, there is only “here.” People often search for an elsewhere, pursing romantic ideas. But that romanticism, those dreams, only exist in our heart. The point is to pursue “here” elsewhere.
—Masao Adachi

In 1969, Masao Adachi made a film called A.K.A. Serial Killer. As he and his crew researched their subject—a real life killer and novelist named Nagayama Norio—they visited the places he had lived, “starting with the place he was born [Abashiri, Hokkaidō] to the place where he was arrested [Tokyo], noting his impoverished background and his efforts, according to Adachi, to try to “live honestly.” As the filmmakers came upon multiple sites featuring concrete walls, they came to see the sense of suffocation and confinement such environments might produce, Adachi says, “We agreed that a story was unnecessary. We decided to film how this country and its magnificent landscapes oppresses people.”

Pieces of this “film inspired by the theory of landscape” appear in The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years, a documentary that is similarly inspired. Certainly, Eric Baudelaire’s documentary is of a different era, and its subjects—the filmmaker turned Japanese Red Army revolutionary Adachi and Mei Shigenobu, daughter of Fusako Shigenobu, founder of the Japanese Red Army, which became famous for hijackings and bombings in support of a free Palestine——tell stories of hope and resistance, rather than, say, despair and murder. Still, The Anabasis, which is screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival this week, traces unexpected connections between landscapes and internal states, the ways that what locations shape identities and expectations, shape secrets and lies and also truths.

Similar connections are drawn in another film at the Festival, Bitter Seeds. The third documentary in Micha X. Peled’s Globalization Trilogy, Bitter Seeds also follows two subjects, cotton farmer Ram Krishna Kopulnar and aspiring journalist Manjusha Amberwar. Both live in Telung Takli, in Viderbha, India, and both are affected daily by a phenomenon concerning seeds, specifically the genetically modified cotton seeds, made and sold by Monsanto. Designed to resist certain pests (primarily bollworms, “cotton’s main enemy”), the seeds have become a source of controversy in India and elsewhere, as they are nonrenewable and require specific pesticides (both expenses beyond the means of most Indian cotton farmers).

Peled’s film explores the apparent causal relationship between the seeds and a shocking increase in farmer suicides in the past 16 years (“Every 30 minutes,” the film notes, “a farmer in India kills himself”). Manjusha’s decision to pursue journalism—and specifically to pursue the story of the seeds—is inspired by her own tragedy, her father’s suicide. Even as her mother worries that she is not following a more traditional path (that is, to be married), Manjusha is determined to discover how the seeds have come to be so predominant, and how farmers appear to have so little choice. She takes careful notes as she interviews widows, farmers, and local administrators, and then, when she is given a video camera, she begins taping conversations.

From The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years Without Images (2012)

From The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years Without Images (2012)

Bitter Seeds includes some of her footage, intercut with shots of Manjusha recording and writing, as well as clips of her family and Rama’s in cotton fields, doing their best to keep their crops alive. The documentary also follows Rama as he’s unable to secure (another) bank loan to buy seeds, and so must borrow from a moneylender, a decision you can imagine will lead to disaster.

Promised the GM seeds will produce a “high yield,” the mostly illiterate farmers are now unable to purchase conventional seeds, and as their crops fail, they can’t pay back loans or begin again the next year. While experts in offices offer competing narratives—the seeds are good and the farmers’ problems are of their own making versus the seeds exemplify the scourge of globalization—the film observes a related and ongoing predicament, namely, farmers who are increasingly unable to marry off their daughters because they have no dowries. (One of Ram’s daughters observes that girls “cause too much trouble: if I had been a boy, I could have worked.”)

Bitter Seeds points out that these multilayered crises evolved because of an illicit deal struck by the US and Monsanto with the World Trade organization “that forced India to open its doors to foreign seed companies.” Now, even as the US spends $3-4 billion each year to subsidize its own cotton famers (and pays an annual $147 million fine for doing so), farmers in other places suffer consequences.

As Manjusha is working to make Indian farmers’ plights visible, Bitter Seeds expands the reach of her story, and at the same time exposes how films do their work, how they create and recreate “here” in multiple elsewheres. This work is reinforced and refracted in Baudelaire’s documentary, which is comprised mostly of so-called “found footage,” images from Adachi and Shigenobu’s pasts that simultaneously illustrates and obfuscates, realizes and complicates. For The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years is about storytelling, and specifically, about how stories keep and expose secrets.

Mei (also called May) recounts growing up in Beirut unable to tell anyone who she was, as her mother, founder of the Japanese Red Army, was in hiding. “I was born with secrets,” May says now, over shots of broken buildings and old home-movie-looking mobile frames, traveling along city streets. The freedom implied by such movement is illusory, as Adachi says during his narrations (his memories and May’s are cut together, but don’t quite intersect). Her secrets give way to confusion over who she was, or thought she was, as she lied to friends and wondered about her father (a Palestinian guerilla fighter), and his secrets become a means to revelation, as Adachi eventually leaves the Japanese Red Army (following a prison term) and returns to filmmaking, that is, to Tokyo.

Adachi notes that scouting film locations—or even making films—is a process quite like planning revolutionary operations. The search produces experiences that become memories, framed by what you know and can’t know, what you reject and what you embrace. That these different memories are indicated by places—flickering, grainy images of Beirut and images of Tokyo—reinforces the film’s insistence on “here,” as a state of mind as much as a site or a position. Artists and revolutionaries, journalists and farmers aspire to move, to fulfill promises, to go elsewhere. And for all, the point, as Adachi puts it, is “to pursue ‘here’ elsewhere.”

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