I wrote about The Ants and the Grasshopper last year as a film to look out for. It’s out today, a heartfelt exploration of the power of stories to make change. As the tagline puts it, “how do you change someone’s mind about the most important thing in the world?”
The film begins in the village of Bwabwa in Malawi, where we meet Anita Chitaya. She’s a farmer and a mother, a neighbour and an activist. We follow her in the fields as she explains her organic growing techniques. We also see her at work in the community, organising workshops and events that break down stereotypes of ‘women’s work’ and get men more involved in running the household – as her own husband Christopher has learned (eventually) to do.
We also see how the village is affected by changing weather patterns, the walk to fetch water, the difficulty of growing food in dry conditions. Anita knows that this is an effect of climate change, which is caused by the lifestyles of people in richer countries. And so she suggests that she should go to America and tell them about it.
We hear a voice from behind the camera asking if she’d like to do that, if they can arrange it. It’s pretty much the only time we hear from the film-makers, who otherwise step to the side and let Anita tell her own story.
Next thing you know, we’re touching down in the United States and on the way to Iowa to “find out why Americans don’t take climate change seriously.”
What follows is a mixed experience. There are moments where Anita seems out of her depth, struggling with the language barrier and the gulf between her lifestyle and the farmers she meets – what do you say when you ask the price of a tractor, and find it is more than you will make in a lifetime? “This place has everything,” she says in the car afterwards, “and they take it for granted.” I gritted my teeth through painfully awkward conversations with white Christian households that see climate change as nothing to do with them. “They will one day believe it,” Anita observes, “but it will be too late.”
Other visits go better. Anita and her travelling companion Esther make an obvious connection with food activists, and find like-minds at the D-town black farming cooperative. They bond over an interest in soil, growing and food security. Here we see how climate change disproportionately affects people of colour in America too, and there’s a shared solidarity in that realisation.
There’s also common ground with women farmers in what is seen as a male profession, and a wry smile from the Malawians as they learn the word ‘mansplaining’.
The American tour concludes in Washington and the hopes of a visit with some people in charge. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that it’s a no from president Trump. Neither do we get much joy from anyone else, and one brief visit with Senator Jeff Merkley doesn’t seem to go very well. That conversation happens off camera, documented only with a somewhat dejected anticlimax in a corridor, and it feels like the film has failed to land a punch. It’s back to Malawi with little to show and no prospect of change: “While the rich are debating what to do, the poor have to endure.”
However, change doesn’t happen through finger-pointing confrontations and barnstorming speeches to the powerful. As I say to my fellow activists in Luton all the time, change moves at the speed of relationships. And in the final sequences the film-makers return to the same locations two years later. People have moved on in their views. Scepticism has broken down, both in Malawi and in America. A shared story does have the power to change minds.
I really liked The Ants and the Grasshopper. It raises questions about climate privilege, inequalities of power, race and gender, and the many dimensions of climate justice. It demonstrates the power of shared stories, of listening and empathy. And most of all, it cedes the floor to voices that we don’t usually hear from in the climate dialogue, and lets the gracious and inspirational Anita Chitaya tell us what she wants us to know.