Taking us into the bitter and idyllic lives of peasant farmers, director Uruphong Raksasad sifts out a conflict between the abstract economic forces of the modern world that shackle the farmers to their work and crush their lives’ possibilities and the farmers’ corporeal labor that creates the food society needs to even establish such a feudal system. Though Agrarian Utopia doesn’t present this conflict, less directly stated than identifiable, with any solutions or as gloom and doom, it suggests that the beautiful Thai countryside where this drama takes place is a priceless and irreplaceable treasure that not even all the farmers, never mind the politicians, can appreciate.
Splendidly shot in HD, Agrarian Utopia‘s Northern Thailand pastoral settings, previously and most remarkably brought to us by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, are so refreshing and mesmerizing that they alone can provide the movie’s raison d’être. The farmers, their love of the land tainted by feelings of involuntarily being tied to it, are, except for one man, less in awe of their surroundings as they are in favor of higher-paying jobs in Bangkok. Their inescapable problems are related to taking out too many loans that, they remark, the bank makes too easy to secure, and will be impossible to pay back due to the ratio of a loan’s interest to the small profits squeezed out through farming. While that’s the reality of these people’s lives, the film cautions that it’s also their general outlook when it introduces the optimistic man referred to as the Professor, a kind of Masanobu Fukuoka type, the Japanese farmer famous for his naturalistic “do nothing” style and use of clay seed balls, which the farmers employ in the film.
This contrast of outlooks gives us a good vantage point to see how the devaluing of the land happens. Because the Professor is single and educated we understand that the farmers are neither; because he’s passionate about organic farming we realize they couldn’t care less; because he has a sense of joy while he works we realize they look distressed. The Professor’s wealth is his knowledge, which translates into an enthusiasm for the hands-on lifestyle required, but the farmers see wealth as being of the monetary sort, and they are far from having that. The scenes of the Bangkok political rallies that bookend the movie, which are also made up of their own disunities of the opposing political parties’ speeches, give us a contrast to the these viewpoints.
Interspersed with this loose-fitting structure are remarkable scenes of the moments that make up the farmers’ daily lives. As in The Tree of Life, when we see children frolicking in watery rice paddies, the physical sensations are so convincing that it’s as if the water jumps off the screen and splashes you in the face. Likewise, when we seen them slurping up fresh, raw honey that their parents knocked off a tree branch, there’s a strong sense of being with them. The adults’ farming techniques, though simple and surely hard-earned, are so obscure in today’s age (especially in America’s hyper-industrialized agricultural business) that they in effect serve as a shock which reminds us of how removed we’ve become from growing our own food. There’s a simple yet effective art to the farmers’ movements as seen in the slapping of the greens they’ve pulled from the mud against the side of their feet, the way they machete the fields, the way they whack the loose rice with oversized, bristly brooms. Sure, to them this stuff is uninteresting, but the point Raksasad is making is that this is a noble profession (he actually sees farming as the only essential occupation; all else merely gives one money to buy food), one that we can all do if we allow ourselves to be drawn in by its simple beauty, can envision its value, and remember its satisfactions.
Joining a growing body of new movies such as Sweetgrass, Alamar, and La Libertad, Agrarian Utopia mixes fiction and reality, approaching its subject with an unobtrusive ability to both control and be controlled, lending a sort of naturalism to its naturalism. It’s an indication of Raksasad’s talents (though he could stand to get a better editor) that he’s able to conjure such a strong sense of place and conviction without professional actors or the fingerprints of a production. Like the relational Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, who bought a piece of land near Chiang Mai in the late ’90s in order to have a place (an “agrarian utopia”) for artists to share ideas and practice farming, Raksasad procured land for his film and enlisted two families to practice their own relational aesthetics (though it’s unclear how much was scripted). Without being preachy at all, like so many food-industry docs, Agrarian Utopia might make you long for a reconnection with your foods’ cultivation, make you mourn the forces that punish such wholesome farming practices, and make you wonder, maybe just for a moment, whether it’s possible to live in a world where you don’t have to give up the luxury of your movie theater seat to not eat the frankenfoods in the lobby.