.Free the Land

‘Occupy the Farm’ begins with food deserts and ends by raising more questions

The arrival and departure of Earth Day grants the Green Movement 24 hours to target its messaging. Like Arab American Heritage Month, it has yet to be universally adopted or even extended to an entire weekend. For the rest of any given year, the movement lacks a central figurehead and a sure way to secure the general public’s TikTok-attention span. When Al Gore made his laudable documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006), the subject of climate change quickly developed a tinge of partisanship. Liberals freely praised the former vice president’s call to action, whereas conservatives simply dismissed the science whilst praying to an invisible God for the return of “family values.”

The movement’s latest prophet of doom is a Scandinavian teenager. Greta Thunberg is the symbolic leader of an organization that doesn’t employ her. The earthday.org office is housed in a beautiful brownstone on Washington, D.C.’s N Street. It’s likely that an advertising firm branded the nonprofit with a three-pronged mission—broaden, diversify, mobilize. The talking points are morally correct and sound like they’ve been blandly distilled down from market research and focus groups.

You can donate to that organization 3,000 miles away, but local causes—often powered by unpaid volunteers—are vying for your spare change with more urgent needs like rent, outreach funds and legal representation. Earthday.org partners with local organizations across the country, but the movement’s many moving parts aren’t aligned with the same battle cries or statements of purpose. Eleven years after Gore’s film won the Academy Award, it’s an inconvenient truth to acknowledge that causes often dissolve in the same way the latest Kardashian trend does.

Originally released in 2014, Todd Darling’s Occupy the Farm premiered this year on a couple of local affiliate PBS stations for Earth Day 2021. Set in 2012, Darling’s documentary follows a group of protesters as they occupy a tract of land on a busy corner of San Pablo Avenue in Albany. Overseen by UC Berkeley, the acreage until that point was largely reserved for academic research projects. At the time, this arable field, known as the Gill Tract, was set to be paved over to make way for a Whole Foods Market and more student housing. Darling chronicles the protesters’ progress as their Occupy movement gains traction and public sympathy.

But Occupy the Farm isn’t shaped with a reporter’s eye. It’s an impassioned-message film preaching to a nobly-intentioned choir. The film reinforces the practical wisdom that viable farmland should be used to feed the local population, especially those living in nearby communities who are trapped in food deserts. Darling also decides to vilify the opposing point of view, held mostly by university and governmental functionaries. The director adds melodramatic music in scenes to boldly underline the presence of the evildoers. This technique drains any sense of psychological nuance from the participants on both sides of the conflict.

Obviously, this approach is both the film’s strength and its weakness. When a church choir responds wholeheartedly to its preacher in the pulpit, the sound of their united voices is meant to inspire non-believers, encouraging them to enter the fold. Occupy the Farm doesn’t have any intention of being an olive branch. Conservatives have already burned all the olive groves to ash. But the administrators, professors and police officers here are portrayed as unthinking, intractable buffoons. Perhaps that’s all they are to Darling. He’s a humanist—on the condition that we believe what he believes.

The director focuses on a few recurring protesters who are reasonably identified as farmers because they plant food in the field. These equitable-thought leaders state their cases eloquently. They’re just past their student days, fueled by and striving toward their ideals. They don’t want a national corporation, known for its overpriced groceries, to inhabit the space. This year, at the beginning of April, West Oakland’s Community Foods Market made the news because it’s in danger of closing. Occupy the Farm briefly acknowledges the existence of East Bay food deserts like West Oakland but focuses, the way a primer does, on the mechanics of the daily occupation. For those who participated, the film must feel like a memory suffused with the thrilling sensation of nostalgia for that rare prize, a well-managed and successful occupation.“Occupy the Farm” is streaming on Food Matters TV.

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