09/26/2012 05:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Suicidal Farmers on Film

Now that Dick Cheney has admitted that choosing Sarah Palin as John McCain's 2008 Vice-Presidential nominee was "a mistake," is it fair to remind people of his insistence that "deficits don't matter?" Since 2008 (when Wall Street did its aggressive best to loot the United States Treasury while George W. Bush was still in the Oval Office), it has become clear that debt means different things to different people.

  • For some, like Mitt Romney, debt is a tool that can be leveraged toward amassing greater wealth.
  • For others, it is a curse that brings dishonor upon not only them, but upon their family as well.
  • For some, debt is a line item on a balance sheet.
  • For others, it is a death sentence.

During the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival, it was interesting to note a series of films about foreign farmers who had been driven to suicide by their failure to pay off their debts. Watching how wealthy Americans handle debt (e.g. The Queen of Versailles) only reaffirms that the system is rigged to benefit the superwealthy who live in an alternate universe that is very much of their own making.

* * * * * * * * * *

John Shank's feature film, Last Winter, follows the plight of a handsome young man who struggles to preserve his family's heritage and his way of life as an independent farmer. Unable to compete with larger economic forces that are driving Belgium's small farmers out of business, Johann (Vincent Rottiers) is too stubborn to let go of his macho pride. As Shank explains in his director's note:

"Johann is a man bearing two different heritages on his shoulders: one of them material, the other spiritual. Both heritages are embodied in the same elements, the same gestures and the same places, deeply rooted in the realities of the rural life that bring immense joy to Johann but, at the same time, wear him out. Apart from his belonging to a long line of farmers and a close knit rural community, Johann feels bound to the vaster and larger natural universe that surrounds him. In this vaster universe, he feels needed. He has a purpose. But what is to become of this man's life, of his spiritual existence, if the objects and elements, gestures and rituals that carry him, that seem to be his support, are taken away?

Vincent Rottiers as Johann

"Johann is gradually forced to fight harder and harder to preserve his heritage, concealing his difficulties from those who surround him, trying to cling to the world slipping away from beneath his feet, and feeling the elements of his own personal mythology begin to fall to pieces. His inability to let go of his roots plunges him into a traumatic uprooting, far more violent than the pain caused by material loss of his childhood home and the disappearance of the only world he has ever known. His spiritual existence is slowly being smothered."

In his youth, Johann had a habit of going for long walks in the forest and not coming home for days at a time. Unfortunately, his love for the land (coupled with his determination to live the life of an independent farmer) prove to be his undoing as the forces of international trade triumph over tradition.


Much of Last Winter's drama is to be found in its lonely vistas, silent looks of pleading, the cold power of winter and the desolate frozen Belgian countryside. Alas, this is yet another film about independent farmers going bankrupt and committing suicide in various parts of the world.


Other than scenes in which Johann is meeting with the farmers' co-op or trying to get a loan from someone, Shank's film is lean on dialogue. As the filmmaker explains:

"I want to embody this story in few words and simple gestures. I want to embody this story in the rising of the very first light of day and the dawning of night. In the coming of winter and its first flakes of snow. In the face of a young man and the relentless work of his hands and body. In the heavy drops of rain slapping faces. In the body of a man carrying the weight of his sister in his arms. In a man hiding in bushes, watching his home and his land from afar. I want to embody this story in the turning off of a bedside light, when the body of a loved one dissolves into darkness."

Visually rich, Last Winter follows Johann as he begins to isolate himself from friends and fellow farmers until the time arrives for him to take that long final walk into the frozen forest from which there is no return. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * * *

The final installation in Micha X. Peled's trilogy of documentaries about the hidden effects of globalization, Bitter Seeds delves into the mystery of why, every 30 minutes, another cotton farmer in Central India commits suicide by drinking Monsanto pesticide. Whereas cotton farmers formerly nurtured seeds from the previous year's crop with cow dung (a natural fertilizer), Monsanto's genetically modified seeds have taken over the market and forced many farmers into bankruptcy.

Poster art for Bitter Seeds

Bitter Seeds is a bracing work of documentary journalism that shines a light on class warfare within an emerging superpower. Introduced to India's farmers in 2002, Monsanto's new genetically-modified seeds are three to four times as expensive as hybrid seeds, require costly fertilizer, pesticide, more water and rarely produce their advertised yields. Farmers who cannot get a bank loan are forced to work with illegal moneylenders. Because they lack modern irrigation, they must depend on the local weather to provide water for their crops.

When their crops lack sufficient water (or succumb to infestations of mealybug), India's farmers often lose their land to moneylenders who heap insult on injury by charging outrageous interest rates on their loans. Meled's story line follows the efforts of an 18-year-old woman whose father committed suicide. Manjusha's goal is to become a journalist so that she can write about what is causing so many farmers to commit suicide.


Shot in the Vidarbha region of the Indian state of Maharashtra (where most farmers are cotton growers), Peled's heart-rending documentary shows farmers caught in a web of debt, ignorance and shame who can find no escape from their troubles other than death. Here's the trailer:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape