Raj Patel is an author, academic and activist, best known for books such as Stuffed and Starved, The Value of Nothing, or A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. He is also a film-maker, and the director of The Ants and the Grasshopper, reviewed here and currently in cinemas.
JW: You’ve been an author, an academic and an activist. How did you find yourself directing a film?
Raj Patel: I was tired of being a ‘wonk’ in other people’s films. You’ve seen these films where it starts off with people of colour or working class communities suffering in one way or another, and then someone like me will come on and say “yes, the poor have it tough”. You didn’t need me to tell you that, but documentary filmmaking is impatient and doesn’t like handing the mic over to working class people.
I know enough organisations that really should be having their stories told. And since I didn’t know what I was doing I found the director of Hoop Dreams, Steve James, and he guided me into how this process should go. He had to step back because we didn’t have any money, but he was there at the beginning and then he sent Zak Piper to be my co-director.
One thing that really impressed me is that this is Anita Chitaya’s film. She even wrote the narration. You appear for about five seconds yourself, and only once do we hear the voice of someone behind the camera, when they ask about going to America. This felt like a good example to me of ceding the floor to someone and letting them own their own story.
To be fair, it didn’t come naturally. Initially we were going to have some Hollywood bigwig do it, and then I was going to do the narration. But in the edit room it was like I was some kind of woke David Attenborough, “here we are among the Malawians, and you can hear them smash patriarchy”. It became clear that it wasn’t working and it needed to be Anita’s film, but we had to fight our own patriarchy in the making of this film to realise that.
There’s this phenomenon of what we could call climate privilege, that operates in similar ways to white privilege or male privilege: if we’re not affected by something, we tend not to see it. That’s a theme in the film, something that the Americans remark upon. Is that why it’s so important to see and hear from others, to make these experiences visible?
The film initially was just about how the community in Malawi was making big changes to the way that they were living, taking on patriarchy and climate change. When Anita suggested she go to America and talk to people, that’s when it became two worlds interacting. And it was interesting to see in America how people experience climate change differently – working class people in America do experience climate change. That emerged from the film not because we intended it to, but because Anita was asking the right questions.
I loved the way that people find common ground in the film, whether that’s African American farmers sharing a respect for the land, or the way that the women bonded around the word ‘mansplaining’. We also see some quite awkward moments where people don’t make that connection. What was it like to be in the middle of those conversations?
It was awkward! But Anita and Esther were familiar with some of that. There’s a line in the film where Esther says that ‘change begins with denial’. And when they were having conversations with people who disagreed with them, that was easier for them to navigate because they’ve seen denial before. Esther is a veteran of AIDS denialism and patriarchal denialism as well as climate denial. The thing they couldn’t stomach was pity. Politically you can’t get anything off the ground there, whereas with denial at least someone is paying you the respect of disagreeing with you.
There are some striking moments of honesty in the film – people admitting to being wrong, and even owning up to some pretty terrible behaviour in the past. How did you build that kind of trust?
I’ve known the founders of Soil, Food and Healthy Communities since 1999, so I’ve been there right through the 2000s. We were there quite a lot, and our Malawian producer was there a great deal. So that kind of trust is what you get when you’re with a movement over the course of years. It would have been a lot harder if you were dropping in and out, and then you’d need the expert to come in and say “the poor have it tough”. But if you have the patience you can wait for the political theory that comes from the ground up.
The film is an active demonstration of the power of shared stories to change people’s minds. It must have been very satisfying to film the last sequences in the film, and see how people’s views had shifted – well, some of them anyway.
I was surprised by Jordan (a young farmer in the US). I think that was a testament to Esther’s foresight – she’s been an activist for 30 years. She knows denial, and she knows a candidate for change when she sees one, in a way that perhaps the rest of us might not.
We knew change was possible in Malawi because we’d already seen so much of it. There’s lots of research into how you can get men more involved through the right kind of organising. That was less of a surprise. What was gratifying was to be able to capture moments on camera that symbolised that change.
Have you been able to help the community in Malawi, so that they benefit from the film’s release?
As a matter of journalistic integrity we weren’t paying for the interviews or anything like that. However, in post-production we were able to pay Anita and the village choir commercial Northern rates for the music and the narration. We’re encouraging people to donate to Soil, Food and Healthy Communities. We’re also raising money to offset all the carbon emissions from the production of the film. We’ve found land on which trees can actually grow, so we’ll be able to give back in a way that the movement and the community wants.
And what about you – will you be making more films after this?
I enjoyed doing this, but I also realised that the best thing for me to do is to fundraise for other people to make their own movies. In fact, as part of the fundraising to complete our own movie, we also got funds from a donor for Detroit to make its own movie in response to what we did. That short film is coming out in a couple of months. That’s where I want to be as an activist. There are some stories that I can tell. There are quite a lot more that I’m not in a position to tell because they’re not my stories, but I can play a role in getting them out into the world. Take a back seat, hand the mic over.
And finally, how different is the film that you set out to make from the one being released today?
Completely different. We thought it would be two years and then we’re done. Then Anita said can I come to America, and we had to fundraise for that and support her. Then we had to wait two years to see if it had any effect. Then there was Covid. It’s a completely different film, and I’m grateful that it is.
Anita’s voice travels. Anita speaks in the language of prophets – a voice that I just don’t have. But because of that people here respond well. It’s been screened in churches here that would never have shown the documentary that I intended to make in the beginning. It’s having demonstrably more effect on people whose minds need to be changed that anything I would have made. And it’s another demonstration of what happens when we hand over the power to others to tell their story.