BLACKFISH director Gabriela Cowperthwaite teams up with journalist Nate Halverson from the Center for Investigative Reporting for her latest film, THE GRAB, which made its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. The documentary follows Halverson and his team as they connect the dots of a global story about governments and corporations making deals on territories beyond their borders in order to control food and water access that will be increasingly in demand as climate change affects the planet. At TIFF, we sat down with Cowperthwaite and Halverson, who is also a producer on the film, to discuss their collaboration and the implications of the story.
Science & Film: I left THE GRAB with the distinct impression that this is a story in which no individual wins–with the possible exception of the Russian cowboys. How does that resonate with each of you?
Nate Halverson: Russia, scientists forecast, is going to be able to increase its total food production [due to the effects of climate change]. Canada also. Those are two unique examples, but the current food baskets of the world—particularly the U.S.—are looking at having harvests widely, detrimentally disrupted in the coming decades. There are going to be far more losers than winners, and we’re already seeing that. We are also beginning to see those who are looking to capitalize off of that change. We had one investor say to us, Armageddon is more likely than not, and this is how to position your money in that scenario. We’re seeing more action from investors than we are effective responses from government and those who should be in a position to protect people.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: This is a film about equality. It seems like it’s about food, water, scarcity, climate change, but this crosscuts the haves and have-nots. There are people who benefit off of scarcity. You’re watching them look at the whole discussion around climate change and say, keep talking about that, slow down on that legislation, because the jury is still out on climate change, and while you’re doing that we’re just going to scoop up everything that’s left for ourselves. [With the film,] we are trying to blow the doors open on that, and help people realize that it’s up to us to start holding power accountable.
S&F: You start the film talking about Smithfield Foods and China owning one in four U.S. pigs. It’s a startling statement, but I just want to ask the simple question: so what?
NH: In and of itself, you’re right, so what? But once you begin to recognize that there is a pattern, a national strategy developed by the Chinese government that this thing is the result of, then you start asking, why is that a national strategy? Do other places have that national strategy? What does that mean in terms of how they’re forecasting the future of the world? What does that mean for most people in the world? The answers are really disturbing and should be upsetting to everyone alive.
GC: Each of the stories [in the film] in and of themselves are fairly innocuous. China eats pork, so what? They own some pigs. Russian cowboys, isn’t this a fun side story? Once you put them into context and realize they’re part of a larger system that is essentially taking the final airable land left on the planet out from underneath us while we’re ostensibly not paying attention, you start seeing that this is an insidious direction we’re all moving in. We had to see what was behind it, and each of the stories was a portal of entry into what power is doing on this planet right now.
S&F: What was the relationship between your journalism, Nate, and the film?
NH: We started reporting on this as a film around 2017. Prior to that, I had been doing short-form news pieces and we had the great fortune of being introduced to Gabriela who is a master storyteller and has a history and desire to tell heavy, impactful stories. I just wanted to provide her the investigative ammo for her to put it together in the most interesting, compelling way to help people connect the dots.
GC: It was such an incredible treasure trove for a documentarian. The only thing I knew had to happen was to shape it into a narrative. I knew we didn’t have two hours and had to shape it into 90 minutes.
S&F: Why 90 minutes?
GC: Because I know that people only have the emotional and intellectual ability to take bite-sized chunks of something heavy, that feeds your brain. With that knowledge I thought, I’ve got to entertain, I’ve got to make sure they don’t leave their seats—I always call it a bouillon cube of information. The symbiotic relationship between Nate and I was me saying, “can this fit into THE GRAB? Is this literally a grab? Are there people on the ground we can talk to? Is this an intuitively accessible story?” Then, Nate would look through all his reporting and identify what was. We did this dance for six years. Some things fell by the wayside, but those things might find a home in a podcast in the future.
NH: We cooked up a 12-course meal and served a three-course meal.
S&F: In a story like this where the evil is capitalism, and it feels so big picture, what do you hope individuals take away?
GC: I will say, to riff of something Nate told me, there is big systemic change and then there is small change, individual change, and both have to happen simultaneously. The big systemic change has to do with things like: the U.S. has no national water strategy. Water laws were written in the 1800s, at a time when we thought resources were interminable. So, water legislation from top down needs to happen. As citizens we understand why, so when you see that legislation come forward, get behind it. This is hopefully fodder for holding power and government accountable.
We all have to change if even a little bit. We all have to eat less meat. We all have to think about consuming our food in more of a closed-circuit system; shop at farmer’s markets, you can’t be buying a watermelon in December. Also, if someone comes away from this movie and sees people throwing up perfectly good food, I want that to feel like a gut punch. If that is all we take from this, then someone has changed. Each of us just has to move a little bit for us to right ship.
NH: The world used to be very different, and people became aware of the issues of their time, they demanded change and changed the world. We are in one of those inflection points where if people see change needs to be taken and they don’t take it, it’s going to be devastating. This film is part of the collective knowledge of the issue at hand—a huge issue of our time. We need to tackle it systemically and societally, and if we don’t—you don’t need to take my word, you can take the CIA’s word—it’s going to be cataclysmic.