On the surface, Raising Resistance appears to be a documentary about genetically modified soy production. You would be forgiven for thinking that this was not perhaps the most riveting of film subjects – yet you’d also be wrong, as this isn’t really what the film is about. Yes, it takes place against the backdrop of large-scale soy production, but the real story here lies in the politicised life-and-death struggle of small farmers (campesinos), in Latin America against a powerful and damaging corporate invasion. In this case the Paraguayan farmers are led by main protagonist and father of eight Geronimo Arevalos, a peaceful man yet one with strong convictions against the large-scale industrial agriculture that is damaging his community and many like it.

We see corporate farms seize the campesinos’ land, use it to grow genetically modified soy, and spray pesticides that not only destroy the campesinos’ crops and thus their livelihood, but also poison them and their families. Yet the farmers and businessmen involved with these corporate farms are by no means without their own struggle, which is explored in the film, and genetically modified soy production in itself is a paradox.  On one hand, it meets a worldwide growing demand for livestock feed, which in turn helps to feed a booming global population; on the other hand, it is wreaking ecological havoc in Latin America and destroying the livelihoods of the campesinos, leaving them without suitable crops to sell or eat, and quite literally poisoning them.

Protagonist farmer Eichelberger and combatants

It is a testament to the filmmakers’ journalistic integrity that they deliver an unbiased and sympathetic investigation of both sides of the story, exploring the fundamental need of both the corporate farmers and the campesinos to grow crops and make enough money to feed themselves and their families. As one of the less well-off corporate farmers remarks, he would grow something else, something that didn’t anger the campesinos – but it wouldn’t sell anywhere near as well, and he has a family to feed and house.

The film progresses well from about halfway through, building to end pretty powerfully, but the first half of the film does feel slightly too slow, and I have to admit my attention did wander at times. Perhaps it was an attempt at a gentle, measured introduction that didn’t quite work; perhaps it was the talking heads explaining the science behind the transgenic soy and pesticides that didn’t keep me enthralled at first.

Yet once the film leads us deeper into the politicised aspect of the struggle and really shows us what is at stake – the campesinos’ livelihoods, the health of their children – then the film becomes stronger. Perhaps this could have been introduced earlier on in the film, but still, it builds well from this point and leads to a poignant and quietly powerful ending – almost a cliffhanger.

Campesino Antonio and combatants

Something that did keep me interested in the slower first half of the film, and which continued to be of a high calibre throughout, was the cinematography – particularly the beautiful wide shots of rolling fields, the sun-dappled trees and intimate portrait-style close-ups of the various farmers, their lined and weathered faces telling their story too. The directors of photography Marcus Winterbauer and Börres Weiffenbach should be commended.

This is an important film to be seen, particularly by Western consumers, buying our transgenic soy-fed red meat in our often unethical supermarkets. This documentary may not appear to have the sexiest subject matter at first, and may begin slowly, but is ultimately a rousing and unsettling David and Goliath tale of the fight of the common man against increasingly dangerous corporate expansion.

Click here to watch Reeling The Real’s interview with co-director Bettina Borgfeld at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2012.

by Stephanie Robinson

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Reeling The Real is a new community dedicated to the discussion, promotion, and celebration of documentary film-making.

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