Against 'Oh-Dearism': An Interview With Leah Borromeo

Leah Borromeo is an activist filmmaker, whose latest project documents the epidemic of suicides amongst cotton farmers in India. In an interview with Urban Times she discusses the story behind the film, and her ethos as a documentarian.

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Leah Borromeo is a London-based journalist and filmmaker, known for documenting social issues and arts activism as well as for her involvement with political protest groups. After featuring an article on her forthcoming documentary Dirty White Gold, which focuses on cotton farmer suicides in India, Urban Times was keen to talk to her about the process behind the film, her own ethos as a filmmaker and her reluctance to ‘bash viewers with the worthy stick’…

Photo © RJ Fernandez

UT: Hi Leah. Previously you said that you discovered the issue of farmer suicides in 2009 when you were invited on a press junket to India. What did you see there, and at what stage did you think, ‘I need to go out there and make a film about this?’

LB: Well, on the press junket, I intended to write an article and pitch it to the Sunday Times or something like that. Then I was talking about this project to a friend of mine, one of the people who made The End of the Line [a film on overfishing], and she said to me, ‘If you’re going, bring a camera.’ At that stage I’d never shot anything before properly. Before the trip I did some research, thinking I was going to do another fashion piece, and then I found out about the suicides. I wanted to make the connection between the fashion supply chain and the fact that people are dying – because it was so obvious that there was a direct connection between the families here who were suffering, and people like us, who are fairly culpable in it.

As a filmmaker, once you’d decided to make the film, how did you establish a clear narrative from so many possible stories?

First, you have to remember that this is an idea I’ve been playing with for 3 years, and I wanted to find a way to tell the story in a way that’s never been told before. There are already a lot of angles about cheap fashion: for example, another film called Bitter Seeds, about a girl who wants to become a journalist to expose the issue of farmer suicides, or a Bollywood film called Peepli Live which takes a more comedic angle.

I wanted to take an approach that wasn’t, to borrow a phrase from Adam Curtis, ‘oh-dearism’, which is when people watch a documentary, see all the misery and say, ‘Oh dear, isn’t that awful?’, and then do nothing. I wanted this film to be the antithesis of oh-dearism – for them to think, ‘Isn’t this awful…but here’s what I can do about it, this is how we can change it.’

That’s why I wanted to have two parallel narratives: one would be the stories of two widows and a farmer, and then alongside that the story of a burgeoning movement, of activism within the fashion industry in the West, that has a direct connection to the first story. There’s a tendency for us to see people who are impoverished and in far off countries as the Other, and it’s not that way to me, because there’s so many commonalities and connections…which is why I wanted those two parts to crash head on in one film.

I imagine the farmers you encountered, who were experiencing these difficulties, wanted to share their experiences with you – but did you ever encounter opposition from people who didn’t want you telling this story? 

There’s a tendency for us to see people who are impoverished and in far off countries as the Other, and it’s not that way to me.

Actually, no, there wasn’t any at all…The only opposition that I tended to get was a kind of NGO, researcher and journalist ‘fatigue’, because farmer suicides are so common that people constantly traipse in to Vidarbha (which is known as the “cotton suicide state”), and go to an NGO that deals with it, and say “Can you introduce us to……?” Then that NGO will curate a whole series of interviews with people, feed you the story they want to feed, tell you about their programmes etc., and you run the story. So you get a lot of fatigue from people who are continually traipsed out in front of the cameras. That’s something I wanted to stay away from.

I was much happier just driving around – in fact Hanuman, one of the farmers in the piece, we just came across while driving around looking for someone spraying pesticides. Other times people were given to us by NGOs, but it turned out that a friend of theirs had a more interesting story, and was the one that actually made it into the film. Another one we found in the paper through just looking for the closest suicide in a 5 mile radius – which I know sounds quite macabre. Though we consulted them, mostly we went off-piste from all the NGOs, because ultimately I didn’t want it to be a film for them, or for campaigners, or for anyone else who happens to be a big name in the field: I wanted it to be a film for the three people whose story I’m trying to tell.

I’ve heard you mention Monsanto as being one of the biggest players in the Indian agricultural industry, so could you tell us a bit more about their involvement?

Ninety-five percent of the cotton in India is owned or controlled by Monsanto. They are the biggest player by far. They have a technology called Bacillius thuringiensis (Bt) which is a polymer that’s wrapped around seeds, and deters the boll weevil. It’s an insect that comes in and eats cotton – in fact there’s all sorts of wonderful blues songs about it, because they used to have a lot of trouble with it in the southern United States, and we’re incorporating some of those songs into the film.

After the liberalisation of economics in India, around ’95 or so when genetically modified technology started coming in – and Monsanto came in with Bt shortly afterwards – that’s when the first suicides started happening. This is because of the particular tie that was then established to Bt, and thus Monsanto’s control over the seed market. Then there are other companies in the market like Hindustan Insecticides Ltd, which is 15 percent owned by the Indian government – so clearly there isn’t much impetus from the government to make people stop using insecticides, even though they cause a host of dreadful health problems for farmers along with being so expensive. It’s a country that’s 70 percent agrarian, so this is stupendously big business, and it doesn’t seem that there’s much care given to the people who do the planting.

Documenting pesticides in India (Image: DirtyWhiteGold on Sponsume)

On your blog you write, “Dirty White Gold won’t be your Friday night date film but, with a bit of craft, it won’t be one of those documentaries that bash you over the head with the worthy stick either….” What did you mean by that?

There are a lot of documentary films that are not willing to be critical of themselves. This film is very willing to be critical about itself, and in fact of the whole organic ideal. A lot of the time, people just come up to you and say, “Why can’t you just go organic?” Well, you try telling a man who is phenomenally in debt, knowing full well that going organic is going to send him into 3 years of even greater debt, because he’s going to be in a transition period and no-one will buy his crop. You try telling him, “Hey dude, just go organic…”

It’s a strange kind of colonial mindset in fact. I come from a third world country, I moved to the States in the mid-80s as a refugee, and so I know the elements of being that outsider and being the one everyone tries to pity. I don’t want to put that into the film, into any of the subjects or the characters that I have, because it’s a shitty position to be in. Then there’s the audio-visual clichés of sunsets, tracking shots of people driving round, music that goes [imitates wailing musical style]…you’re basically putting a gun to someone’s head and saying, “Cry, look, they’re suffering.” People are intelligent enough to sympathise and to empathise with the characters if you show them the reality. You don’t have to splash out the bodies just to make them feel guilty; you can trust in the audience’s emotional intelligence without doing that.

Finally, I know that you’re crowdfunding the last part of the film. What will the rest of the money you need be used for – and what would you say to encourage people to give it to you?

Well, with the money we get, every pound given will equal three, because there’s a private foundation that’s willing to give us £25,000 provided that we match fund that. We’ve raised some of it already, we’re now crowdfunding the rest of it, so we need to raise £18,000 to make that happen. What we’ll do with that money is be able to go back to India and follow our characters, go deeper into their lives, and actually make a film out of that.

Whatever is left will go to post-production – and post-production itself is quite expensive, so it will probably take the bulk of any expense. Film budgets are ridiculous, but I’m doing this film for a ‘shoestring’ budget of a quarter of a million, which is tiny in the film world! What I’m raising now is essentially my production budget, so everything else for distribution and post-production we’ll raise afterwards. That means this money will pay for crew, and that’s crew in India, because I’m hiring as many local staff as I can. The only “Westerners” out there will be me and my director of photography, everybody else we have will be local.

What else can I say to get people to give me money? Well, we’re trying to do something in a way that’s engaging to people who wouldn’t otherwise be likely to get involved, and trying to broaden the appeal of this film – a film about an epidemic of suicides in India, a very dark subject – to the point that people will think, ‘Hey, let’s go see this film, because we’re doing this to change things’. I hope that’s what will really make a difference.