Agrarian Utopia


Thailand / 2009 / Thai

Directed by Uruphong Raksasad

With Prayad Jumma, Somnuek Mungmeung, Sai Jumma

Still from 'Agrarian Utopia'A young family man, a Thai peasant named Mungmeung, relates to his friend his financial troubles. “It’s easy to get loans,” he sighs despondently. “But paying them back is another story.” Indeed, he is the ideal candidate for those who give out the loans – he has a family, no resources to pay back with any expedience, only his work to offer – the type who can easily be locked into debt for life. The other man offers a plot of his own land that the family can use and share in the harvest, loan-free. So Mungmeung, his family, and his brother and his family, default and move onto their new plot to start anew.

Life doesn’t get any easier for him and his wife, but they have high hopes: to one day send the children to school, to a future away from the rice paddies. They may not owe anyone, but they have moved from the technological assistance of the farm to a more basic and challenging way of doing things. They must shake the grain from the stalks by hand and train unruly water buffalo from scratch. Their neighbor, who visits often, brings them in contact with the back-to-the-land mentality that he puts into practice. A retired teacher, he farms on a large plot by himself, processing the rice with a bicycle-powered thresher, and dreams of setting up a shelter for animals of all sorts.

Their lives are a combination of subsistence farming and working for someone else. As a result, striving for calories takes on many varied activities. Two men visit a Buddhist shrine, briefly pray to a Garuda statue, and get down to business: obtaining the beehive hanging up at the top of the stupa. At one point they pull a honeycomb down from a branch, with shockingly little protective clothing on, and the kids scoop out honey with their bare hands. Roasted rodents, baked fowl, and snake salad all feature in the somewhat random diet formed by what they can hunt down on their land.

The reason for all this work is, of course, to live to keep working, so locked are the farmers into a predestined pace. This is the story of most of the human beings on the planet: debt, work, and weather. Agrarian Utopia‘s sociologial-art value is immediately evident because in it there appears to be no division between an image and a manifest interest in people. More importantly, that interest is broad enough to take on many aspects of daily life, but is also specific enough to isolate what makes life run, what provides drive and the ability to keep functioning. It doesn’t move in any discernible flow; it is collage, mosaic, and mural all at the same time. It is a film not to be followed, exactly, but to be allowed to settle like a glaze, one whose vague geometry gives a sense both for diurnal activity and irreduceable experience, the small and the infinite as one.

Digital video, while not handling lines in a poetic way, is well-equipped for communicating utter stillness in a way that is beyond real, and beyond cinema. A figure moving through the mist resembles a ripple across a flat, solid canvas of moisture. Powerful winds swirl the water. Two boys jump into the mud and hide among the tall grasses. Everything that they do here is tied to nature, mediated by ingenuity. To them it is nature, not a succession of mercurial whims, or even a neutral and unyielding fact. It is equally their own nature, since they are a part of it. Like an earlier film by Raksasad, 2006’s Stories From the North, Agrarian Utopia has a sort of narrative thread (in the other film, it is a series of narrative threads) built from excerpted moments of the lives of ordinary people, marked by candidness and intimacy. Its individual scenes seem related to a much longer cord of civilization that ranges wider and runs deeper than stories or documentation could ever do. Like cave paintings that relate the age of their stone canvas, the millennia that lie behind them, it manages to be both timeless and effectively present, its significance evident beyond the bounds of representation.

Still from 'Agrarian Utopia'While Agrarian Utopia studies activity, work, the form of function, and the many tones of survival, few actions take place without human voices. Aside from an extended period in its final third – a storm that occurs during the height of the rice-growing season – the film is full of mealtime conversations, pronouncements, and sleepless musings from the family members. These don’t amount to a unified point, and so the dialogues within are all the more versatile, vague, and human. A rural existence is far from a disconnected one – which we saw when waves of ‘Red Shirts’ marched into Bangkok in 2010, mainly from the countryside, demanding the ousting of Abhisit. Even if, in working the land, the brothers and their families are more separate from society than they had been, they still share many of its dreams and ideals. At one point in the film, Mungmeung ventures into the city and finds himself surrounded by a cacophony of political slogans making promises to help the poor.

Toward the beginning there is a rally for a pro-Thaksin politician whose supporters deliver fiery, electrifying speeches. The one-way politicization depicted here continues on in dialogue between the farmers. The topics are familiar; they want whichever government will make life easier for them, will make opportunities available and live up to its promises. Like the lines the politicians deliver, the common people’s concerns abridge what is actually a very complex and encompassing role that governments have in their lives. We never lose this notion of the feverish activity, the powerful workings of capitalism and politics going on far away, but whose effects filter downward into their most concrete and unequivocal forms. Even in scenes that are stationary, or idyllic, or absorbed in the minutia of work, the struggles continue in the background of our consciousness, even as we watch the people farthest from them, least a part of shaping them, and altogether most profoundly affected by them.

While having elections is a vital – if extremely confrontational – issue in Thailand, what does it really matter for the farmers? They see what’s being done to them but do not see independence as a viable course to take. It seems a step back, away from the direction that they’ve been taught, throughout their whole lives, is the correct one.

Talking with their neighbor plants a seed of ambivalence in them – is his outlook better? They wonder. “He’s a crazy fool,” Mungmeung says. “And we’re another kind of crazy fool.” After the friend announces that he has been forced to sell his property, thereby rendering them all landless once again, the neighbor invites them to live on his land. They would not pay rent, and could grow enough to live off of, but they must not use pesticides or artificial fertilizer. It seems too risky, too much like an experiment, although by all accounts the neighbor is doing quite well in his own way. For someone who loves nature and working closely with it, his is truly the life.

What their neighbor describes to them is an interconnected and harmonious system of nature and civilization. Animals help him farm. Wild animals eat what he grows and doesn’t use, and consequently disperse the seeds. “It’s not about the money,” he says, describing his approach to farming. “It’s about the food.” This way of life does not sound dissimilar to the way that the families Jumma and Mungmeung live, but with subsistence becoming a good, even liberating thing. They remain steadfastly focused on upward mobility – freedom from loans, education for their children, a life in the city. Daily experience contradicts these notions, blocking them for striving for anything beyond their immediate needs.

Still from 'Agrarian Utopia'The utopian experiment taking place next door to them may be an ideal for the way that the rest of the country, even the world, could operate. Beyond rural farming, its tenets could be applied in all manner of settings and on a great many levels. While he is living an experiment, he still seems infinitely better off. Perhaps it is his outlook and planning that make him appear this way; after all, as Mungmeung points out, the man is healthy and doesn’t have a family to look after. But his surpluses could support them all. So where is the utopia to which the title is referring? Is it in the neighbor’s life at the present moment, or in the future hopes of the family? The system in which they live imposes on them its version of what their goals should be, and keeps them fixated on those goals, which it renders, by design, impossible.

There is a great deal of change taking place outside the families’ purview. Technology is expanding and intensifying, the political tectonics shifting seemingly by the day, and yet their lifestyle moves more or less at the rate that it has for generations. Which is not to say that it doesn’t evolve in its own way – it does, but far out of step with what happens in the cities. While remaining rooted in its rural setting, the film, through enchanting lyricism and sensitive observation, communicates both the weight of this insuperable disconnect between the two worlds as well as the ways in which they are fundamentally, and often painfully, entwined with one another.

Agrarian Utopia works effectively as a discourse on democracy, and also as an immersive portrait of life as a rural farmer. While, on one level, it seems we are seeing scenes from an ancient struggle of people within nature, things feel all the more epic because they are also given a political context, with implications beyond home and field. So many people are fighting to have their voices heard, and so many more, as we see in this film, could not begin to imagine that they have their own voices at all. In a country being confronted with so many disaffected people, the very meaning of a democratic society starts to shift and rumble. The questions take shape: is it a single, definite thing, or does its parameters change depending on the demands of particular situations? Is it an end to be pursued, even if it cannot provide for everyone? In the tradition of Wang Bing’s Coal Money (2008) and Omar Amiralay’s Everyday Life in a Syrian Village (1974), it contextualizes labor and survival as elements of a continuum of social change and economic systems of repression.

The film functions as a statement without really making any of its own. Therein lies its power, because rhetoric has the tendency to become calcified in its particular context, becoming a monument to the ideas it supports rather than a breathing and vital conduit for them. For commentary to be so obvious and necessary, it of course must hinge on real and explicable foundations, those which eclipse the words that get tied to them like paper wishes to a tree. This film is about contemporary life in Thailand – it doesn’t include anything else. And yet, it taps astutely into ongoing dialogues the world over that will no doubt continue far into the future of humanity.

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