TIFF 2022: The Grab, by David Bax
It’s difficult, when writing about an issues-advocacy documentary–especially one as effective as Gabriela Cowperthwaite‘s The Grab–not to just turn around and spout back the lessons learned and truths uncovered by the movie, turning a review into a list of talking points or, at best, a policy paper. One must make pains to write about the filmmaking itself, like the montage of archival footage Cowperthwaite presents, all cut together very quickly and gussied up with graphic effects.
But, of course, what’s on the screen is filmmaking too. Cowperthwaite is a filmmaker, not just a wonk, so she understands how to capture compelling images that help her tell her story. That’s the case when she gets to the section about how Russia, foreseeing itself with more arable land on its hands once climate change melts large parts of its north, is importing American cowboys to teach the art of ranching to its citizens. Thus, we end up with one of The Grab‘s most surreal, indelible sights, a full-on rodeo in the Russian hinterland, including women in cowboy hats square dancing to, for some reason, disco music.
Okay, I’ve put it off long enough. Here’s the issue The Grab details and why we should be alarmed about it. Climate change is leading to a future in which food and water scarcity are going to be ever bigger problems. Lots of nations, from Russia to China to Saudi Arabia to the United States, are reading the writing on the wall and buying up land and other resources in other countries in order to provide for themselves and their own economies. It’s having a devastating effect on the citizens in these areas of the world; just ask the Arizona farmers who are running out of water because the Saudis are pumping it all to grow hay which they ship back home to feed their own livestock. These are short-termed, myopic solutions that are only concerned with taking, not sustaining. Conservationists get painted as “treehuggers” but saving the environment is and has always been a question of human survival.
Cowperthwaite’s main human subject here is Nathan Halverson of the Center for Investigative Reporting. He’s our guide through these complex, multi-faceted and often hidden issues. But he’s still more subject than host. In a way, The Grab is as much a documentary about the process of investigative journalism itself as it is about food and water hoarding.
Cowperthwaite’s most impressive achievement is that her film doesn’t just explain what has happened or what is happening but also what will happen. One segment of The Grab recontextualizes the ongoing war in Ukraine but, bigger than that, the film as a whole assembles a likely context for the future of conflict in general. We should all be very concerned. Thanks to Cowperthwaite’s strong filmmaking, I already am.