Raj Patel’s new documentary gets its title from an Aesop’s fable. In the fable, a fiddle-playing grasshopper approaches some ants asking them to lend him some food. The ants ask why he has no food of his own, to which he replies that he’s been too busy playing the fiddle to grow and stockpile crops. The ants, rather dispassionately, are disgusted by the grasshopper’s laziness, and leave him to starve. This theme of abandonment is the launchpad for Patel’s documentary.
Raj Patel’s new documentary gets its title from an Aesop’s fable. In the fable, a fiddle-playing grasshopper approaches some ants asking them to lend him some food. The ants ask why he has no food of his own, to which he replies that he’s been too busy playing the fiddle to grow and stockpile crops. The ants, rather dispassionately, are disgusted by the grasshopper’s laziness, and leave him to starve. This theme of abandonment is the launchpad for Patel’s documentary. Though it runs for only a little over an hour, Patel deftly presents a truly intersectional account of the climate crisis. His focal point, Anita Chitaya, a woman from Bwabwa in Milawi, demonstrates for the audience the extent to which climate change is entangled with matters of food security, race, and inequality.
The documentary begins with an account of how the climate crisis has changed things for those living in Anita’s community. It rains less frequently, the nearby river has dried up, and crops have struggled. In her community, when crops fail, people simply don’t eat. We are also introduced to Anita’s work as an advocate for gender equality. The documentary explores how she has almost single-handedly challenged the gendered division of labour in her village. We watch as Anita’s son gazes into the sky and dreams of becoming a pilot. Anita, meanwhile, sees the trail of fumes the aeroplanes strew across the sky and comments that the developed world doesn’t consider how their actions impact people like her. From behind the camera, we hear Patel ask Anita if she would be prepared to travel to America to try and explain to people how climate change has impacted her life. She accepts the offer, boards a plane, and begins her journey.
Thereafter, Anita illuminates, through honest dialogue and acerbic wit, just how deeply the climate crisis is tied to colonialism and inequality. Most of Anita’s interactions with farmers follow a similar trajectory. Initially, a few words on farming practices are exchanged, and then Anita relates her stories of drought and hunger. When the American contingent is asked what they think of climate change, a few stock answers are given; air is sucked through clenched teeth, bodies shift awkwardly on the spot, and nervous laughs emanate from their persons. ‘Are you in a drought cycle?’ asks one respondent, attempting to explain away Anita’s concerns. Another says they distrust people who speak about climate change due to its intensely political nature. They bring up the much-feared A-word; ‘agenda’, and express fears about ‘men in suits’ pushing one. In a particularly revealing moment, one farmer says it would ‘take a catastrophe’ for people to change industrial farming practices in the United States, blithely unaware of the catastrophes unfolding elsewhere in the world. These interactions illuminate just how solipsistic swathes of the developed world can be. More than once, farmers say that they’d prefer to trust ‘God’s plan’ than interfere in the climate, a passivity Anita doesn’t have the luxury of employing. Patel’s documentary poses difficult questions to the developed world which, as it stands, have few substantial answers. Anita seriously questions the viability of industrial farming, whose business model appears increasingly destructive the longer Anita spends in America. Moreover, she compels the developed world to have the humility to learn from the poor and consider how our seemingly benign actions could be harming the world’s most vulnerable.
Although some of these interactions can be despirating to watch, Patel’s documentary is ultimately hopeful, and delineates achievable methods of addressing the climate crisis. Anita visits a small farming collective in Detroit, whose members grow enough food to provide for themselves, while ensuring their environmental impact is minimal. Additionally, Anita’s work as an advocate for gender equality is a powerful example of how entrenched attitudes which appear immutable can be dismantled through passionate activism.
Importantly, the audience is not asked to pity Anita, nor are they asked to wallow in guilt or shame. The Ant and the Grasshopper is, more than anything, a call to action. By carefully drawing out how the climate crisis is inextricably linked to material inequality and race, Anita compels us to actually do something. She doesn’t want us to feel sorry for her or the community she lives in. Rather, she asks us to simply listen, and then follow her lead by getting out in our communities and having honest conversations about the role we play in the climate crisis.
Aesop’s Fables are often thought to convey unimpeachable truths. They are solemn tales passed from generation to generation without losing their significance and generally, fables don’t take kindly to revaluation. Patel’s documentary, however, is not called The Ants and the Grasshopper because we ought to agree with the dispassionate ants, but because Anita suggests a radical, new, and open-minded reading of the fable – a reading that addresses food security, race, gender, and inequality. For Australians, a people for whom the climate wars have decided several federal elections, Anita’s voice is urgent and ought to be heard.
The Ants and the Grasshopper is part of the Transitions Film Festival’s 2022 program, “VISIONS FOR A BETTER WORLD” available 18th February – 13th March 2022
Purchase tickets for in-person and online screenings at http://www.transitionsfilmfestival.com/
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