How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm?

The fascination that American culture has with farming comes close to defying rational explanation. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against farmers, I support legislation to protect the family farm and so on. It’s just that the ideological enshrinement of the ideal of the yeoman farmer as the heart and soul of America, an idea that goes back virtually to the country’s foundation, has been a pleasant myth for literally centuries. That said, it makes for wonderful opportunities for filmmakers with a strong pictorial bent, and if the only result of the apotheosis of farm life were movies like last year’s splendid Sweetgrass, I wouldn’t complain.

The reason all this leaps to mind at the moment is the theatrical run at Anthology Film Archives of a film that reminds me of Sweetgrass, the Thai documentary/drama Agrarian Utopia. Director and cinematographer Uruphong Raksasad is a son of farmers, and he brings that nearly in-born love of the land to his film. Except, of course, that the life of a small farmer in Thailand is even more parlous than it is in the United States. At the film’s outset, his protagonist Prayad is basically living like a homeless person in one of Thailand’s cities; land is so dear and so hard to acquire that he and another family merge their poverty to get through a season of rice farming by sharing one meager plot. The neighbors, who aren’t much better off, are as helpful and friendly as one can imagine, but there is very little they can do. By the time the film has ended, Prayad and his family are once more dispossessed, returning to the city where they hear the competing claims of the major political parties with grim dismay.

Raksasad is showing us subsistence farming at a level so low-tech that it probably isn’t too different from what the first agrarian communities must have been like when human began to shift out of the hunter-gatherer mode. The key difference is that in a globalized economy and a world of banks and loans, small-holders like Prayad have little chance. As he says at the outset of the film, “I’ve borrowed too much and have no way out.” And when his latest venture ends in failure, his only options are working for an eccentric neighbor with some interestingly progressive ideas about sustainability (that utterly baffle Prayad) or the city.

Raksasad shows us all of this with an eye for pastoral beauty that does, in fact, remind me of Sweetgrass, and a quiet, almost uninflected style that flows like the weather over the land. Agrarian Utopia is beautiful to look at, a highly intelligent piece of filmmaking, but devastating to contemplate, a bleak picture of what will happen to the emerging nations in the immediate future.

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Elsewhere in the world, someone is laughing. And that’s a good thing, I think. At any rate, it gives stand-up comics something to do, and you know they’d make lousy farmers. Okay, that isn’t the usual choice of career path facing them, but for some people, the idea of doing stand-up comedy is in itself rather alien, as one learns from Just Like Us, a new documentary that played Tribeca last year and is finally receiving it’s theatrical release in NYC. Last year I wrote about the film:

[Joan] Rivers might not entirely recognize Ahmed Ahmed as one of her professional offspring. He’s an Egyptian-American comic and, now, a filmmaker whose first feature is a documentary Just Like Us, which chronicles a comedy tour of the Middle East he led about a year ago. He put together a multicultural roster of comedians, including both men and women from a bewildering array of ethnicities, for what would be the first comedy tour of the region and, in several of the countries included, a first-ever evening of stand-up comedy.

“Nobody has a concept of stand-up comedy in these countries,” he says early in the film. But all their cultures have humor in abundance.

And ground rules. Although surprisingly few topics prove to be out-of-bounds, especially in Beirut, where the rules are definitely not in play, for Dubai and Riyadh the performers are cautioned to “treat it like a Tonight Show setting.” That warning is observed for about fifteen minutes until Anglo-Iranian comic Omid Djalili responds to a shout of “Take it off” in Dubai with what appears to be ten solid minutes of jokes about male genitals.

The comics are for the most part quite good – Ahmed and Tommy Davidson make a particularly strong impressions – but they seem as committed to the idea of using comedy to breakdown stereotypes and barriers as to working these houses for big laughs. In the course of the film, we see the first woman comic to play Dubai and the first Saudi woman comic, who appears briefly in the Riyadh sequence. The film ends with Ahmed and several other Arab and Muslim comics working a club in New York, where a different but no less powerful set of stereotypes need to be challenged. “Comedy provides a dialogue for social change,” Ahmed says bluntly.

Just Like Us is a pleasant and decidedly well-intentioned film, although it tries to do rather too many things at once, giving us a comedy concert documentary, social commentary, some lovely autobiographical passages and some amusing touristy stuff, particularly in the Cairo sequence. It is unfortunate that, for obvious reasons, Ahmed couldn’t include a Jewish comic on this trip and entirely logical that Israel wasn’t on the itinerary, since there is no shortage of stand-up comedy there, but a second excursion rectifying those omissions would be a great subject for another film.

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