Landless (Chão) On MUBI Is A Captivating Documentary On The Socialist Fight For Land Reform, Film Companion

Director: Camila Freitas
Writers: Camila Freitas, Marina Meliande
Cinematographers: Camila Freitas, Carol Matias, Cris Lyra
Editors: Frederico Benevides, Marina Meliande
Streaming on: MUBI

There aren’t many films that unabashedly speak out against capitalist establishments that overtly shape and control the society around them. The last film I watched of this grain was Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, starring Jesse Eisenberg, about three environmental activists who try to bomb a local dam. It was languid and deeply affecting, with a restrained sense of violence, and industrial and social critiques that endure. Much like Night Moves, the Brazilian-Portuguese documentary Landless (Chão is its original title) fosters a similar activist sentiment. The documentary, too, is a cry for environmental preservation. But it goes a step further than Night Moves by commenting on ownership, subsistence, and the state that is above all else. 

Landless, set in Brazil in 2015, documents the Landless Workers’ Movement and their demand for arable, agricultural land. The workers denounce a factory set up on their land as it’s responsible for pesticide-riddled plants and sugarcane. They demand that the judiciary and government expropriate the unproductive, bare, cattle-less fields.

The documentary presents land ownership as a prickly subject, while simultaneously asking some fundamental political questions — Where do ownership and freedom overlap? Is the giving of land a legitimate way to make reparations for decades of suffering? An activist, in the documentary, says, “Land is power.” This statement and its validity predate feudalism, slavery and industrial capitalism, and it continues to have a crippling presence even today.

Landless (Chão) On MUBI Is A Captivating Documentary On The Socialist Fight For Land Reform, Film Companion

In the first scene, a sprightly old woman who is constantly smoking, tells her grandson what she will do once she acquires her share of land. They talk about planting coffee, lemons, coconuts, and oranges in a 40-acre field. They possess a sparkling idealism. The documentary is skewered with many such conversations. Everyone has different prospects and fantasies, some too quixotic, some sculpted by their painful reality. There is soul and spirit though, the workers are not merely an instrument or apparatus for reform. For them, emancipation is redistribution and land, an opportunity. 

The pace of the documentary is slow, it eases you into their reality and lives. The workers are setting up camps for protests, debating worst-case scenarios, and seeking judicial remedies for their case. The magnified look at their everyday mechanics is what helps structure the film’s indictment of a rigid capitalist structure, often hand in glove with the government. After a court hearing regarding their land, many activists said that they were bogged down by the legal jargon, they could not comprehend the alien language the lawyers and judge were speaking. You not only sympathise with their predicament, but also feel paralysed by some ill-fated verdicts. Writers Camila Freitas and Marina Meliande, however, do not jar their material with pessimism. The large, sweeping lands, which are being tilled and sowed, cultivate a strange sense of hope. 

The cinematography, that captures the throngs of protestors and activists, transposes you amongst them. There is very little light and electricity on the fields they are camping at. The camera doesn’t simply contrast the dark with the little bright we see — when the light goes out, the screen goes blank. You, quite literally, see these farmers become invisible, much like how they are treated by their government. One of them even piercingly says, “Society, it ignores us.”

The final text of the documentary shifts focus to Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro — he branded the landless “terrorists” and issued a decree to provide landowners and corporations with arms and ammunition in order to fight them. As a result, optimism wears thin. But as you read that over 120,000 families live in those Landless Workers’ settlements currently, you see the need for endurance and resistance. 

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