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State of the Festival: Sheffield Doc/Fest Reimagines the Land

Reflections on the Sheffield Doc/Fest's reconfigured retrospective about agriculture, land rights, labor, and the land itself.
Matt Turner
Above: La Cecilia (1975)
“The land belongs to those who work it with their hands.”
Emiliano Zapata
In March, Sheffield Doc/Fest took the decision to move the majority of their summer program online, saving a section of it for small-scale cinema screenings in the autumn when the city’s cinemas would eventually reopen. There is no way of knowing what the festival might have looked like in a year without a global pandemic, but one area where the distance between what was planned and what became possible seemed particularly great was the proposed retrospective.
Curated for the festival by Notebook contributor Christopher Small, the retrospective was intended to be a centerpiece of the festival’s new artistic identity under Cintia Gil, the festival’s inbound director. Titled "Reimagining the Land," across twenty films—mostly prints plus some new restorations—the ambitious series would showcase films exploring agriculture, land rights, and proletarian struggle—not landscape as much as the land itself: earth and soil, human life and labor. It sounded like an enticing proposition. Yet, in a year in which much that was planned quickly became impossible, this was not to be, at least not in the form originally intended. The retrospective survived—altered, abridged, but certainly not defeated—with twelve films from the original lineup presented online worldwide in August, and a handful more that screened for local audiences in Sheffield in late October.
My plans changed, too. Instead of watching these films on big screens with company, over a week in July in Sheffield, I watched them on smaller screens alone at home, in stops and starts between August and October. I watched the films that were available on the streaming platform, and then sourced some of the others from the original selection myself in an attempt to watch the retrospective in a form that was closer to the shape it had been envisioned. In doing this, I was reminded of how I first started watching films: from videos from the library, on discs in the post, or by finding a file on some dark corner of the internet. Obviously, I miss the cinema, but watching these films this way made me feel nostalgic for that old feeling of discovery. 
Above: The Land and A Japanese Village
One of the more well known films in the retrospective was Shinsuke Ogawa’s A Japanese Village (1982). Somehow both humble and formidable, this remarkable film gives its single subject a serious, sustained treatment. Filming Furuyashikimura, a village in Japan’s Yamagata prefecture that has only eight buildings but ample farmland, the nearly four-hour-long film first meets the farmers, observing their land and its climate, before moving on to more of the town’s inhabitants to listen intently to their life stories. 
Perched amongst the slopes of Mount Zao, an unpredictable mountain breeze seems to be the source of recent crop damage that threatens the area’s self-sufficiency and sustainability. Partnering with local farmers and scientists, Ogawa produces an in-depth analysis of the situation, working through various colored charts, topographical maps, and scale models, and monitoring the fields and taking soil samples. Time-lapse footage portrays the process of rice fertilization and where it is failing; dry ice cast over a scale model of the mountains shows how the cold air moves and causes the damage. Everything is flat, didactic, yet completely compelling. 
Much of the effect, I suspect, comes from Ogawa’s dedicated mode of investigation, the care and attention put towards examining aspects of ordinary people’s lives that more issue-orientated documentarians would deem of no importance. Working with his collective Ogawa Pro, Ogawa and his crew lived in the village and worked in the fields for years prior to the film’s production. This comes across in the film, which has a constant sense that the filmmaker is not just informed about the topics he is addressing, but deeply invested in resolving them.
There is a similar sense of investment in Youssef Chahine’s The Land (1969), an adaptation of Abdel Rahman al-Sharqawi’s 1954 socialist-realist novel from one of Egypt’s most famous filmmakers. Set in the 1930s, the events play out in a rural settlement on the Nile delta that is principally occupied by peasant farmers. A film that begins and ends with images involving soil, as with A Japanese Village, the film’s central conflict is agricultural. The farmers, already angered by a regulatory change that dries up their land’s irrigation, eventually come under the control of a wealthy out-of-towner who tricks them into having a road built through their farmland.
In one animating scene, the ensemble film’s essential protagonist, Mohamed Abu Sweilem, reawakens the self-determination of the people of the town, rallying them by asking what happened to the spirit they had shown during the country’s 1919 revolution. Energized to defend their land and all that it has to offer, they come together to organize an ill-fated but noble struggle. An intelligent, rousing film featuring many beautiful compositions, it ends with an image that is particularly striking: Sweilem’s hand is seen clawed and bloodied in close-up, tilling the earth with his fist as his body is dragged through it. “Without land, one has nothing.”
Above: Mother India and Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance
Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957), one of the most famous films in Indian history, ends equally symbolically, with a character’s blood coursing through an irrigation channel. Though expansive and emphatic, it has simple questions of land ownership at its center. Nargis Dutt plays a struggling, impoverished mother who is indebted to a cruel and demanding landowner who ensures her life is a misery. Her husband flees, the bullock dies, food is scarce, the land is flooded. Little goes right for her, but relentlessly she continues, living off the land and feeding her sons despite all the misfortune she experiences.
The film is a melodrama in the broadest sense, in which the incessant misery is interrupted by songs of joy, struggle and resistance. The film’s images are bold and blunt, and the elaborately staged sequences are consistently vibrant and colorful. Dutt’s central performance carries the film through, eternally-suffering yet strong and never pitiful. It is not her but Birju, one of her two sons, that ultimately cracks, having faced up to the nefarious landowner and witnessed the town turn against him. “This land is mine, it is my mother. No one can snatch it from me!” he shouts desperately. “I'll take back our land! I'll take back everyone's land!” Instead, it is the land that takes him back. His is the blood that runs downstream, after he is killed he is returned to it.
Also orientated around land struggles, Alanis Obomsawin’s Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993) details the events of the "Oka Crisis," a land dispute between First Nations people and the Canadian government that occurred in Quebec at the start of the ‘90's. For 78 days, members of the Mohawk community, joined by other tribes, erected a barricade in the town of Oka, attempting to prevent the construction of a golf course on their land by taking up arms in the face of state violence.
A prolific Indigenous filmmaker and activist, Obomsawin’s documentary on the events is well constructed, compassionate and comprehensive, made proximate to the subject and with an understanding of its nuances. It begins with a detailed verbal history of the area and its various occupations, contextualizing the competing interests that remain at play today. From there, it observes the events at the barricade as they unfold, with Obomsawin acting like a combat journalist and embedding herself within the site to hear directly from the parties involved. 
Obomsawin successfully condenses the events into a streamlined narrative, contextualizing the dispute before showing how it unfolded. Though consisting mostly of straightforward reportage, the film is deeply moving. Resisting dominant narratives posed at the time, it portrays those involved as thoughtful, principled, and brave, counter to the media narrative positioning them as domestic terrorists. Outnumbered and largely hopeless, they stand strong and make their point regardless, history having told them that there is no agreement that can be reached that would be adhered to. 
“People are fed up,” one Mohawk activist says, standing arms crossed, masked in front of the camera. “The only thing the government understands is this,” he adds, pointing to his gun.
Above: The General Line and Earth
Other films in the retrospective were more concerned with the technical aspects of agriculture, the actual toil involved in extracting the land’s spoils and the processes behind this labor. Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov’s The General Line (1929) is particularly intrigued by this idea of technologization. The film’s story is quite simple, but the treatment is striking. A woman (Martha Lapkina, a farmer herself and therefore equipped to convincingly plough the fields, milk cows, and operate the tractor in front of camera) sets up a small collective farm with four other farmers. As it proves successful, more believers join the operation until eventually they can all afford a tractor. 
Commissioned to champion the Soviet Union’s collectivization of agriculture, the film contrasts this forward-looking woman with the various fusty figures that obstruct her, presenting them as selfish, ignorant and blind to the benefits of modern farming. Eduard Tissé's cinematography is incredible, and Eisenstein relishes a chance to apply his montage techniques to imagery showcasing the promises of industrial modernization. In one sublime scene, a cow is superimposed over the clouds above a crop-field, charging triumphantly over the horizon. Another  famous one shows—through a series of rapid cuts that crescendo with Martha covered in cream—the joy of a milk-separator in action. Both scenes are patently absurd, but also beautiful and somehow strangely moving. Eisenstein takes a straightforward propagandistic premise, and artistically stretches it (irresponsibly, perhaps, given the real-world ramifications of the subject) to its outer limits, making something surreal, mesmeric, and poetic.
Two other films looked at the land as something more elemental, looking at technologies of mineral resource extraction and cultivation. I must admit feeling fatigued by documentaries about mining, but Joana Torgal and Rodolfo Pimenta’s Wolfram, a Saliva do Lobo (2010) does something interesting. Filmed at the Panasqueiras site in central Portugal, the film intensively observes mining at an almost molecular level, obsessively tracking every stage of the process in granular detail, from extraction to factory processing and exporting. Most of the work is observed up close, seen as light cast from headlamps, cracked hands gripping tools, or abstract machine components grinding together. The film is loud, hard-edged and technical, but it is also rhythmic and textural. 
Conversely, Hiroatsu Suzuki and Rossana Torres’s Earth (2018) is a more ambient portrait of land-based labor, quiet and wordless. Made of static square frames, most of the film, which is situated in the same country’s Alentejo region, consists of lengthy observations of large ovens being used to make charcoal. Flames flicker and smoke pours out; men poke leisurely at the furnace, a simple technology that is treated with reverence. Where in Wolfram, the earth’s elements are treated brashly, like something that needs to be beaten in order to be transfigured, here the land is seen more gently: a precious, mysterious resource and method that requires attention to be coaxed into gestation. In both films, working with the land is a kind of geological alchemy, a kind of controllable yet unknowable collision of human labor and mechanical process.
Above: Prisoners of the Earth and Trás-os-Montes
As well as providing fruits to live off, the land is also lived on. Several films in the retrospective explored varying ways in which societies are constructed around it, forming lasting or temporary communities. Margarida Cordeiro and António Reis’s Trás-os-Montes (1976) is a beautiful film, an ethnographic fiction of a type that has become popular in the forty years since its making. Made in conjunction with the townspeople of the region of its title, a ruggedly beautiful rural area in Northeastern Portugal, it mixes observed and constructed material, recording the lives and labors of the townspeople and involving them in recreations of folkloric stories from the place’s past. The land here is fluid and potent, imbued as much with a sense of the histories it contains as the lived experiences of the current inhabitants. Richly textured and dotingly researched, as well as experimenting cleverly with documentary form and hybridization, it is also serene and transfixing, containing some of the most pictorial and painterly landscape images in the whole of the retrospective.
In Jean-Louis Comolli’s docu-fictional La Cecilia (1975), the society depicted is less seamlessly integrated into the area within which it resides. In the film, which is based on a real colony, a group of 19th Century Italian anarchists are invited to Brazil by the emperor and encouraged to create a “socialist communion,” a state-sponsored social experiment in collectivism that is non-hierarchical and agriculturally self-sustaining. “The earth belongs to those who work it, right?” says one of the anarchists, but naturally, each man is not as invested in working as the next.
The films depicts the interactions of the group, who, as might be expected, start off agreeably before eventually descending into self-compromise and mutual disagreement. Comolli was an editor at Cahiers du cinéma before making this, and his film, though oddly formally straightforward, is accessible and packed with ideas, showcasing the complexities of building autonomous communities entirely through the anarchist’s spirited conversations and their sporadic bouts of impassioned singing.
Mario Soffici’s invigorating, charged adventure film Prisoners of the Earth (1939) merges all the themes of the films mentioned above. At the film’s start, a group of indentured laborers set off on a boat for an island in Argentina’s Misiones region, where they are to be overworked and mistreated by the wealthy landowners. A laborer and a foreman fall for the same woman, igniting a struggle between the two that sees the instigation of a worker rebellion. Feverish and frenetic, the film is quite stark in terms of the graveness with which it portrays its subject matter of worker exploitation, as well as the degree of passion that is present, both sexual and violent. This raw, powerful film ends with an image that echoes the one that closes Chahine’s The Land: a man with nothing left but his principles to hold onto, sacrifices his life and dies clutching the land. In this image the retrospective’s central principle can be found: while man and the land are inextricably intertwined, the land offers everything to anyone but ultimately belongs to no-one.
On reflection, making my way through "Reimagining the Land" felt less like attending a formal retrospective organized by an institution, and more like a process of working through a list of film recommendations—a set of options suggested by a knowledgeable friend that are actionable at your leisure. It felt like being fourteen again and posting screenshots of films on Tumblr, finding nerdy new sites and adding them to my blog-roll. I write here about my time navigating the reimagined 'Reimagining the Land" retrospective as I experienced it from home, in the hope that you too might be inspired to go exploring: either by following a path that has been provided, or by forging forward on a retrospective of your own creation.


Sheffield DocFestOgawa ShinsukeYoussef ChahineMehboob KhanAlanis ObomsawinSergei EisensteinGrigori AleksandrovJoana TorgalRodolfo PimentaHiroatsu SuzukiRossana TorresMargarida CordeiroAntónio ReisJean-Louis ComolliMario SofficiState of the FestivalSheffield DocFest 2020Festival Coverage
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