donderdag, november 3, 2016

Filmmaker Jan van den Berg op het podium in TuschinskiHow do we feed the ever-growing world population without harming the environment and our health? A major question, containing thousands of small and personal stories. Two of these stories are told in the new documentary Silent Land: the fight for fair food, by film maker Jan van den Berg.

The first story is that of Cambodian farmer and mother Seng Channeang, nicknamed Moon, who fights to raise her children with her own home-grown, organic rice. The other is about the big landowner His Excellency Mong Reththy. Creating employment with thousands of hectares of plantations, he dreams in his own way about a better future for Cambodia. 

Main characters and crew on the first row in TuschinskiThe documentary premiered in the presence of the two main characters on October 11th during a festive and well attended event in the Tuschinski Theatre in Amsterdam, in the run-up to World Food Day. The world premiere was co-organised by Initiatives of Change Netherlands (IofC). Furthermore, IofC organised a special screening of the film on the 14th of October in a film theatre in The Hague. For the discussion that followed, the leading environmental Indian activist Vandana Shiva and Dutch green entrepreneur Maurits Groen were present, as well as the main character Moon.

‘The documentary highlights the moral dilemma’s around food security. It shows the complexity of the issue, but doesn’t judge. The audience itself determines the perspective,’ says Laura Reijnders, communications coordinator of IofC Netherlands. She has been involved in the creation of the documentary since 2012 (see block below). The events around Silent Land were a follow-up to last year’s activities around food security and environment

Good rice

Moon with her husband and family in the rice fieldsMany tourists come and see the famous Cambodian temples of Angkor Wat. But only few are aware of the tragedy that is played out behind them: a harsh and unequal battle for land. And with that for the access to healthy food, to socio-economic security and autonomy.

In one of the villages behind the famous temples lives young Cambodian mother Moon. There she grows her own, organic rice. She dreams of being a fulltime farmer. ‘I don’t have to get rich on this. I just want healthy food for my family and some rice to sell,’ she says after the film screening in The Hague. ‘Because in Cambodia the good rice is exported and the local rice is full of toxics.’

But all around her, family and friends loose their land to big companies, while often being exposed to noxious circumstances. Through Moon the documentary also relates these stories. Of her landless aunt, who now earns her living by collecting plastic in the city. Of her friends whose health was damaged while working with toxics as pineapple pickers in Thailand. And of course that of Moon herself, who besides her job with a health NGO, tries to set up a cooperative of rice farmers.

Example for the villagers

Jan van den Berg en Moon in Filmhuis Den HaagSimultaneously with her fight for land and healthy food Moon’s quest to arrange her own life as a woman unwinds. She was the first of her village to refuse an arranged marriage. After her walking away she worked amongst other jobs in a sewing workshop, where her health was permanently damaged by toxic chemicals. But through her jobs she was able to pay for her own education which she never had as a girl.

‘I now study accountancy. Everyone in the village is proud of me, because I enabled myself to study,’ says Moon in The Hague. She became an example to others: after her already several other girls from the village married for love.

For the pigs

Main character of 'Silent Land: the fight for fair food' His Excellency Mong ReththyIn sharp contrast with the images of the manual watering of the rice fields and the shuffling of cow manure stand the large scale agro-industrial enterprises of His Excellency Mong Reththy. Making his fortune in the aftermath of the dictatorial regime of Pol Pot, H.E. Mong Reththy now owns thousands of hectares of land with palm oil and rubber plantations and pig farms. With 10.000 employees his company is the largest agro-industrial business of Cambodia.

‘They accuse me of land grabbing, but I pay the farmers for their land,’ says H.E. Mong Reththy in the documentary. ‘If they want, I hire them.’ The film shows him during his visits to the villages he built for his workers. In a special ceremony he gives out the keys for the houses. He distributes food amongst the children, gives them some extra money and personally pulls out their loose milk teeth.

‘Don’t buy land,’ he says in a speech during a special party in honour of his birthday. ‘I have enough for you to work on. I create everything for you.’ And some moments later: ‘Thanks for not protesting. And thanks as well to the armed forces.’

According to H.E. Mong Reththy large scale enterprises are to move Cambodia forward. ‘I am accused of creating a state within a state. But I merely want to help the country. I don’t want bad karma when I die.’

The two worlds meet when Moon visits H.E. Mong Reththy. The movie shows how she asks him for advise on the export of the organic rice that she wants to produce with her cooperation. ‘Export is difficult with small amounts,’ answers H.E. Mong Reththy. But if she wants he is willing to buy her rice. He can use it as food for his pigs.

One planet

Vandana Shiva‘This movie is not just to watch, but also to make a personal choice,’ comments Vandana Shiva in the discussion afterwards. Shiva is in the Netherlands for the Monsanto Tribunal, in which indictments against the agricultural giant Monsanto are investigated by international scientists and activists. ‘How we eat, shapes our food system.’

Farmers make up the largest group of hungry people in the world, says Shiva. ‘They often are indebted because of the expensive chemicals and seeds. Ironically, they have to sell their food to the same people that sold them the chemicals and seeds. Eventually they have to sell their land. We have fought for the abolition of the feudal system. But now we have corporate feudalism: the farmers are totally dependent on the companies.’ 

Gesprek na de screening in Den Haag met Vandana Shiva en Maurits GroenIt is a hoax that modern technology asks for harmful chemicals and pesticides, says Maurits Groen. ‘We have to think of other models, precisely with the aid of modern technology.’ Furthermore, he emphasizes the importance of public awareness. The public should take its responsibility to pay a fair price for products, so that farmers don’t have to economize on the environment or animal welfare. 

Both speakers highlight some recent positive developments. The International Criminal Court has announced to expand its case selection to include cases of great environmental damage and land grabbing. Shiva: ‘Human rights and environment can no longer be seen separately.’ Groen agrees: ‘Problems often are treated apart, but we have one planet. And we are one human family.’ And, so he stresses, the Paris climate agreement shows that this human family can work together on the right track. 



Laura Reijnders, Seng Channeang en Jan van den Berg na de screening in Den HaagWhen Laura Reijnders spotted a man in a huge parka coat in her local supermarket in 2012, she wondered: will this be movie maker Jan van den Berg? She had just ordered his DVD Silent Snow, a documentary about the pollution of the Greenlandic snow by pesticides from all over the world. And yes, it appeared to be the same man. They engaged in a conversation and thus started a friendship and collaboration of years, culminating in the film Silent Land: the fight for fair food.

At that time, Reijnders had just stopped with a poverty project that didn’t work out, and wanted to engage further on the theme of poverty and hunger. ‘I want people to become aware of how well off they are. But also of the fact that they can make a difference. A movie is a good tool for this.’ Through many brainstorm sessions the idea of the film Silent Land developed, together with several initiatives around it. For example, they initiated an educational project using an early version of the movie to create awareness among high school students.

‘I don’t want to point an accusing finger. My hope is that by seeing the movie people will start to think about their own situation and become aware that everybody can contribute. After all, we vote with our fork, with what is on our plate. During my own search I found out that there is no such thing as the perfect choice. I once set off to find a ‘good’ packet of butter. After 1,5 hour and visiting six supermarkets I came home without any butter. Still, I believe that I can make a difference by trying my best and reflect on what I buy.’ 


Text: Irene de Pous | Photos: Luisa Machacon