Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2010: ‘Nero’s Guests’

All too often the type of activists who end up with documentary crews following them on their activist rounds are a telegenic bunch eager to sell their message by any means necessary, alternating stern lecturing with self-deprecating humor to remind the listener of their approachability and humanity. No such desire seems to animate Indian rural affairs journalist P. Sainath, who barrels through Deepa Bhatia’s brisk, chilling film with no time for niceties. Once he lays out his primary cause, it’s easy to see why.

Since 1997, some 200,000 Indian farmers (read that number again) have committed suicide, mostly because of their crushing debt loads. In recent years, some rural districts saw several suicides a day. The chilling Roman historical anecdote from Tacitus quoted by Sainath that gives the film its title almost pales in comparison to the woeful stories that he reports on day after day.

The Indian news media, as besotted by celebrity and consumerist ogling as anywhere else, has acted mostly like this terrifying epidemic has not existed. Sainath, a pugnacious and driven writer, writes up tearful portrait after portrait for his paper, and gives countless lectures about the phenomenon, tying it frequently to policies of corporate farming and governmental ignorance. He rages in wonderfully profane fashion against London and Harvard economists who have never met a farmer jetting into his country to advise New Delhi on rural economic policy.

Although Bhatia’s unfinished-feeling film gives disappointingly short shrift to Sainath’s theories, and doesn’t spend enough time with the overburdened and ignored farmers, she (or, more correctly, Sainath) delivers a strong broadside against the forces (Western and Indian) that would pretend profit is the only cause the world can agree on.