Three Tribeca Documentaries Turn a Dynamic Eye on Agriculture

By  · Published on April 24th, 2013

You know what makes for really exciting cinema? Agriculture. I kid you not. Two of the best documentaries at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival prove it, and a third film does the same for commercial fishing. You’re shaking your head, I can tell, but some of the most intriguing cinema of the year so far is overflowing with reindeer, herring and wine.

We’ve had a miniature renaissance recently in a genre I would call “Agrarian Minimalism.” Films like Le Quattro Volte, Bestiaire, Sweetgrass and Leviathan take humans almost completely out of the picture. They remain about the relationship between the environment and humanity, but they get there with a silent emphasis on the former. Tribeca films Red Obsession, Raw Herring and Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys move the focus back toward our end of things, balancing a cinematic eye for the beauty of the natural world with an incisive and observant understanding of how these varied food sources anchor or unsettle local communities.

The flashiest is Red Obsession, an Australian documentary (narrated by Russell Crowe) about the rapidly fluctuating wine market and its impact on the historic chateaux of Bordeaux. For hundreds of years these vineyards have perfected the art of viticulture, no more famously than the five “Premier Grand Cru” chateaux: Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion and Mouton-Rothschild. In 2009 they had perhaps their best year ever, a happy accident of the weather. Prices shot up so high that the entire wine world had to re-calibrate its priorities. Then, in 2010, it happened again. The chateaux completely priced themselves out of the American market, and suddenly it seemed impossible to sustain their old business model.

Enter the Chinese. There are now almost 300 known billionaires in China, which means the actual number is more like 600. Filmmaker Warwick Ross begins in Bordeaux but quickly takes this story to Shanghai and Hong Kong, where the world’s newest buyers of obscenely expensive wine attend auctions and stockpile cases of Chateaux Lafite. The Chinese obsession with these wines, Lafite in particular, is keeping the vineyards alive but is also unsettling the growers.

Some of this is anxiety is classic French xenophobia, and one of the experts Ross interviews points this out, politely. Chinese buyers are mostly interested in brand names, it seems, but at the same time there are a handful of entrepreneurs determined to bring viticulture to the Far East. This state of expensive, upper class chaos and constant flux is the driving force of Red Obsession, made richer by the alluring chateaux and striking vines.

Ross’s many impressive overhead shots of vineyards in both Bordeaux and China’s Far West fit nicely with the opening of Jessica Oreck’s Aatsinki, which soars over an enormous herd of reindeer rushing through the forest. Yet Aatsinki is also a much more organic film, focused on a family of Finns in a small community centered on a single animal.

Everyone in this town gathers to tag and keep track of the reindeer, a process that Oreck observes in great detail. We watch as their ears are cut up to mark them, a process that perhaps seems more brutal than it is. Oreck also includes a scene of reindeer slaughtered, and then dismantled for its meat. There is no representation of animal subjectivity here, and Aatsinki is more like Leviathan than Bestiaire in this respect. The reindeer are presented primarily as a herd, and that herd as a commodity that feeds the town and supports it financially.

The most interesting element of the film, however, also comes via globalization. The part of Finland in question is one of the centers of Christmas tourism, built around the reindeer and the traditional story that Santa Claus lives somewhere in the nation’s snowy Northern regions. Oreck films groups of tourists from all over Southern Europe, as the locals take them on reindeer carriage rides and serve them steaming cups of glögg. These scenes have none of the veracity or thriving life that colors the rest of the film, and of course they wouldn’t. The resulting tension, between the life of the reindeer herder and the way it is presented to tourists, has relevance well beyond the boundaries of the frozen North.

Finally, Raw Herring highlights a way of life that faces the challenges of global climate change rather than globalization. There simply aren’t as many herring in the North Sea anymore and those that remain seem to have migrated further north. That’s fine for the Norwegians, but the Dutch ship at the center of this film has it rough. Directors Leonard Retel Helmrich and Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich documented the search for fish on one of the only two ships left fishing under the Dutch flag. Yet while the first third of the film is concerned with this struggle, once these fishermen finally find their quarry, Raw Herring becomes a celebration of sorts.

The Hollandse Nieuwe (Dutch New Herring), the first fish of the year, is quite the cultural phenomenon. Crowds of photographers gather to get the best shots of the ceremony, and there’s a highly-regarded auction of the first barrel. Yet before that, the herring need to be processed and packed, which is the highlight of the film. Most of this is done on the actual ship. It’s like Leviathan without the sense of dread, though there isn’t any sympathy for the fish here either – one young boy looks over the side to watch the water turn red with the blood of rejected mackerel, and remarks that they “shouldn’t have been born fish.”

Raw Herring has the most exciting images of the three films, framing thousands of fish tumbling into and about the vessel with special attention paid to their significance in the lives of the fisherman as well as their sheer multitude. These three films all balance the beauty of agriculture with the humble reality of its products and its crucial role in the human community, opening our eyes to cultures that aren’t as distant as we may have thought.

Check Out More Coverage of Tribeca 2013