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.