The World According to Monsanto Directed by Marie-Monique Robin Classification: G Rating:
A few years ago I saw Bullshit, a fascinating Swedish documentary that follows Vandana Shiva, an Indian environmental activist and nuclear physicist, over a two-year period. Shiva helps teach traditional methods of seed production at her organic farm when she's not battling multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola and Monsanto, the agricultural biotech company that, among other things, tried to patent an ancient Indian strain of wheat. (The name of the doc refers to an "award" one of Shiva's critics gave her for "sustaining poverty.")
It's not surprising then, that Shiva appears two-thirds of the way through The World According to Monsanto, a new doc by award-winning French journalist Marie-Monique Robin and co-produced by France's Arte (a Franco-German cultural tv channel) and the National Film Board of Canada. Many viewers will recognize Shiva from her appearance in the popular, award-winning The Corporation, which set a creative standard for documentaries loaded with talking heads and dealing with subjects potentially mind-numbing to the average Jill. Alas, any hope of her dynamic presence enlivening Monsanto, a well researched but stylistically flawed film, has vanished by the time the India sequences come around and tedium has long ago set in.
The film begins with a brief history of Monsanto (founded in 1901, producing Agent Orange, the herbicide Roundup etc.), moves on to background on some of its controversial products (PCBs, now banned, and bovine growth hormones), then finally focuses on genetically modified seeds, of which Monsanto is the world's leading producer. We hear from farmers, sick citizens, journalists, scientists and former U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials. Robin uses her research discoveries as jumping off points to visit various countries and conduct interviews that delve deeper.
I Googled The World According to Monsanto and discovered it appeared on television in France this spring and opened in Quebec in May; further Googling revealed Robin has written a companion book. Then I Googled Robin and learned she won an award for a book and doc about how the French taught counter-insurgency tactics to Argentina's military.
Yes, the above paragraph is a lame way to impart information in a film review: In an actual film, it's deadly. Yet Robin structures her 109-minute film around a setup of her seated at a computer against a black background, describing her research process while typing phrases into Google's search engine. In an interview in a Montreal paper (which I also found through Google) she said wanted to show viewers how easily Monsanto documents can be found online, usually because lawsuits or whistleblowers made them public. They are hidden in plain sight, so to speak. One shot of Googling and a line or two of voice-over would have made the point methinks.
Then there is the scene in which she talks about the "revolving doors" of executives connected to both Monsanto and the U.S. government during which she cuts, more than once, to a shot of a revolving door. Yeesh. Of Monsanto's ambition to own seed patents, and thus collect royalties on harvests, Shiva says, "It's more powerful than bombs, it's more powerful than guns - this is the best way to control the populations of the world." This incendiary comment might have sparked intrigue, but it loses its fire at the end of this well intentioned but disappointing doc.
Special to The Globe and Mail
The World According to Monsanto opens in Toronto and Vancouver Friday.Report Typo/Error