Fans of the Indian activist Vandana Shiva will finish watching a new film about her feeling inspired. Critics will be annoyed, maybe even enraged.
And those who came in knowing nothing about her will leave knowing mostly what Shiva and her fans want them to know.
The Seeds of Vandana Shiva is one of those films which purports to be a documentary, but is more like an editorial, or a political speech. It has a point to make, and it makes it. But other perspectives are given little, if any, consideration.
True, there is much to learn about Shiva. Her father worked for the Indian government, in conservation, and she loved nature from an early age. After graduate school, she became interested in ecology, and was drawn to activism by the peasant women who – in trying to stop deforestation – threw their arms around trees the logging companies wanted to cut down.
They were – quite literally – the first “tree-huggers.”
Since then, Shiva had written extensively about – and loudly decried – the activities of mining companies, chemical industries and agri-business, and how their quests for quick profits have injured people and the environment. Monsanto – with its multinational business in pesticides and genetically-modified, trademarked seeds – has been a particular target, and perhaps a well-deserved one.
The Seeds of Vendana Shiva shows her rushing to conferences across the globe to give impassioned speeches to like-minded people. It quotes from her devoted supporters. It includes scenes of bucolic landscapes, where farmers plant by hand and village life proceeds as it has for centuries. It’s a pretty picture.
But it’s not the whole picture.
“There’s been a lot of bad press,” admits one supporter, but you won’t see much of it here. The film doesn’t interview any of Shiva’s opponents, although it uses some headlines and a few short, canned clips. You wouldn’t be to be blame if you walked away from this movie thinking that, while there are a few naysayers, she’s an ecological activist who has simply run afoul of some powerful interests.
You wouldn’t be to blame, but neither would you be fully informed.
Unless, if after walking away from this movie, you then did your own research – including reading ‘Seeds of Doubt,” a solidly reported New Yorker profile by Michael Specter. Then you’d find that some of Shiva’s assertions have been widely attacked. Some of the ideas she’s promoted, but the film leaves out – including that pesticides have increased cases of everything from autism to Alzheimer’s – have been debunked.
Shiva is a charismatic person and a lot of what she says seems to make sense. Depending on your own politics, you may recognize the progressive place she’s coming from – patriarchy and corporations bad, workers and villages good – as one you’ve spent time in as well. Filmmakers Camilla Denton Becket and James Becket probably live in that space, too. (“No One’s Feelings Were Hurt During the Making of This Film,” reads a final title card.)
But ask yourself: Do I want to spend time with a documentary that confirms my views, or asks me to question them? And if I walk away feeling I’ve been provided with all the answers, have I really learned anything at all?