Planting an idea: Micha X. Peled shares a screen with his subjects in the making of "Seeds." (Photo by Anand Pande, courtesy filmmaker)

Peled's Globalization Trilogy in India's Cotton Fields

Michael Fox February 24, 2009

Every 30 minutes for the last decade, an Indian farmer has committed suicide. For the family, it’s a devastating tragedy. En masse, it’s an epidemic—and one that’s barely been reported in the U.S. In his forthcoming documentary, Micha Peled exposes not only the harrowing reality but (pardon the pun) the root causes.

"The whole thing is about shame," Peled explains. "A farmer that loses his land loses his status in the village. In an agrarian society, that’s all you have. The people at the bottom are the landless farmers. You can imagine working your whole life for your neighbors puts you at a different status than the neighbor who hires you. Not being able to arrange for your daughter’s marriage is another thing. You can only marry other families who are landless, so you are condemning your children to a terrible fate."

The throughline of the film, which has the working title Seeds, is one farmer in one village in Vibharba, in central India’s cotton belt, over a farming season. He sets out to get money to buy seed and, like most of his neighbors, can no longer obtain a bank loan because he can’t pay it back. So he has no choice but to borrow from a private moneylender, who charges 85 percent a year and demands the land as collateral.

A subplot involves the daughter of a neighboring farmer who killed himself. "Her big dream is to be a journalist, which is a big deal over there," Peled says. "She’s discouraged by everyone because it’s not a proper thing for a village girl. Even having that idea in her head is a bit crazy, but she wants to tell the world [about the suicides]. She interviews her neighbors, she goes to a local newspaper office. When I saw how sincere she was, I ended up giving her a simple video camera and we may include some footage she shot."

While Peled has the main story in the can, last November’s attack in Mumbai cost him a pivotal sequence. The young woman and her mother were planning to attend a rally of thousands of widows of farmers who had committed suicide. They were taking the all-night train and, for the first time in their lives, visiting the big city. The daughter was going to film the trip; Peled had made arrangements to shoot their 6 a.m. arrival at the station.

"Much of the film is very much a downer," Peled notes, "and that scene could be an upper in that this girl has big dreams of finally leaving the confines of her society, and it suggests possibilities of a better future for her. Two days before the trip, two days before the rally, I arrived in Mumbai, and on that day the terrorists pounced and took over downtown for five days. The next call I got was from the rally organizer saying they’d cancelled the rally. I lost a great scene." And, he adds, the daughter and her mother have still never been to Mumbai, or seen the ocean.

Peled embarked on this road, without knowing it, with Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town (2001), his PBS-broadcast portrait of a Virginia town divided by the prospect of a big-box store. In the course of his research, Peled discovered that the vast majority of the discount chain’s goods were produced in China. That led him to a Canton jeans factory, where he covertly shot China Blue (2005). Following the thread, so to speak, Peled ended up in the Indian fields where the cotton is grown that’s turned into clothes by China’s textile workers.

He was originally tipped off to the plague of farmer suicides at the 2007 Thessaloniki Documentary Festival by the renowned Indian activist Vandana Shiva. Zeroed in on the theme of globalization, Peled asked, "Isn’t that an internal Indian problem?" Not quite, she replied. Peled went to India and looked for himself, and discovered she was right. He ended up making five trips over a 12-month period, leaving a few key elements to be filled in elsewhere.

"Unlike my last film, which all took place in China except for one minute at the end, I need to do some filming outside the area where the film takes place, because the context is not so obvious," Peled says. "The root cause of the crisis for the farmers is very much connected with globalization, and that’s what I’m going to be filming in the United States."

If Peled sounds purposely vague, well, that’s intentional. He was decidedly more candid when I asked if he’d started editing.

"You have to edit to get any funding in this country," he declares. "You have to have a sample reel. So I’ve been editing all along, and getting the footage translated."

While the Mumbai terrorists robbed Peled of some great footage, he caught a huge break closer to home. With a narrow window to make a proposal deadline and desperate to find a translator who knew his main characters’ language, on a whim Peled walked into the Bollywood Cafe in the Mission. At the bar sat a software engineer named Rahul Bhide who spoke the dialect and, even more improbably, whose SOMA office was next door to Peled’s. Over the next 10 days, Bhide provided many hours of assistance. You can bet his name will be prominently listed in the credits, whenever Seeds is finished.

Notes from the Underground

George Lucas will receive the Gene Siskel Film Center Visionary Award for Innovation in Filmmaking at the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago on June 13. Jon Favreau will be conducting the interview . . . Smush Media scores twice in two locations: Jennifer Steinman of the Bay Area company Smush Media is debuting her film Motherland at SXSW this March and offering a sneak peek at the Sebastopol Film Fest in two weeks; another Smush Media film, Mine, by Geralyn Pezanoski makes its premiere at SXSW.

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 21, 2011

    In Orbit with ‘An Injury to One’

    Accompanied by a program of solar system shorts, Travis Wilkerson’s 2003 look at ruthless union-busting and the rise and fall of Butte, Montana, offers eerie resonance.

  • Oct 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.