It wouldn’t seem like Wayne Wade’s water pump in La Paz County, Arizona would literally have much to do with the price of tea in China, but leave it to “Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite to connect the dots in “The Grab.” Following a seven-year investigation conducted by Nate Halverson and a team of journalists from the Center of Investigative Journalism, Cowperthwaite convincingly makes the case that they’re working on one of the most important stories of our time as they track the sales of water and other food supply chain resources to wealthy countries that are poorly suited for sustainability as the effects of climate change start to take hold. A sprawling geopolitical situation that even the Center of Investigative Journalism needs to create a full-scale searchable database for, “The Grab” is able to get its arms around the potentially incomprehensible issues the global shift of resources could portend from price hikes to radically redefined cultural centers, not only putting it within grasp, but becoming quite gripping.
Although Cowperthwaite is able to capture the more immediate effects on individuals like Wade, who has seen the local companies find short-term prosperity by selling off regional water to Saudi Arabia and China, the director is able to illuminate the long-term consequences when countries are able to see consolidation of their own power in being able to control the flow of resources around the world. The illustration of Arizonans being frustrated by not having enough to feed their plants while those in other countries are hoarding it to keep their hay supply flush to feed their cows is potent enough, but Halverson makes for an effective and personable guide after his own globe-trotting exploration of how the world has begun to be reshaped by what natural resources are available in any given region, no longer resembling the clean-cut muckraker he started out as with a scruffy beard and slightly sunken eyes to reflect all he’s seen.
There is a Western-centric gaze that’s inevitable with Halverson leading the charge and while “The Grab” doesn’t leave the U.S. out of criticism – and one of its most fascinating strands becomes the involvement of Erik Prince, the former head of the private paramilitary firm Blackwater offering similar services to countries enriching their agriculture industries – the film appears to paint in fairly broad strokes when it comes to countries such as Russia or Saudi Arabia that appear as villains or those in need of assistance, with a trip to Zambia reveal Prince’s Frontier Resources eagerness to buy up arable land where vegetation could thrive for others. Still, any sacrifices made to simplify more complex regional realities allow for a more overwhelming global sweep with the trends that Halverson and his team identify becoming undeniable.
A trove of e-mails sent between Prince and his many co-conspirators around the world that the journalists uncover are vividly brought to life with the urgency they deserve by Cowperthwaite and her intrepid crew and as Halverson suggests that too few have actually gone to the places where this resource hoarding is unfolding, the film’s ability to take audiences there directly has as much value in making sense of the situation as it did for him originally. When such a compelling argument that life on earth as we know it is at stake is made, “The Grab” proves vital.
“The Grab” is available virtually in Canada through the Digital TIFF Bell Lightbox through the end of the Toronto Film Festival on September 18th.