Raj Patel and Zak Piper on Planting Seeds of Inspiration in “The Ants and the Grasshopper”

Anita Chitaya is caught between a rock and a hard place at the start of “The Ants and the Grasshopper,” though there seems to be nothing but open fields in front of her in Bwabwa, the village in Malawi where she’s helped cultivate crops of cassava, pigeon peas, pumpkins and corn for ongoing sustenance. She recalls how her young son told her he’d like to be a pilot, a dream that she doesn’t want to discourage when she wants to instill in him the belief that he could do anything, but makes her reflect on her own reality when he told her, “I will be a pilot in the land they don’t pollute, not here.”

Chitaya actually sees things quite differently from her son, though one can understand why he’d feel that way when the two have to pump water from deep in the soil when the nearby Rukuru River has all but run dry and the community cleverly constructs clay stoves to use less firewood from the ever-diminishing amount of trees around them. The locals have the ingenuity to make such concessions to a changing climate that keeps it running without incident, yet Chitaya can’t help but feel any of it will make much of a difference when it comes to the future of her son and others when far more developed nations abroad refuse to change their practices to cut down on pollution, doing more damage in a day to the earth than her sliver of East Africa could do in a lifetime.

While this may exist only as an abstract notion in their main subject’s mind, co-directors Zak Piper and Raj Patel, a longtime sustainability expert, are able to bring it into sharp relief in their compelling film, which affords the proud Chitaya a chance to see America where some of her beliefs are confirmed and a few are challenged, just as the views of anyone watching will be as she tours farms in the Midwest where all are concerned about the impact they’re making on the earth. Looking at roots isn’t limited to what’s in the ground as “The Ants and the Grasshopper” elucidates how cultural attitudes towards the environment are shaped and offers hope that even the most ingrained and wrongheaded can be reformed as it finds inspiration in the Rolling Acres Farm in Iowa and the Black Dirt Farm Collective in Maryland where the conscientiousness extends from the care that’s put into the plants to the communities they serve as well as the strides made in Bwabwa towards gender equality when agriculture and cooking are largely seen as women’s work. (Chitaya, among others, has to convince her neighbors such as Winston, who thinks washing a dish would make him seem less of a man, otherwise.)

Curiously, the feature only emerged after much grander plans for a much more sprawling project were abandoned and in its final form, “The Ants and the Grasshopper” shows how much power there is in addressing the area right in front of you as a foundation for a much bigger movement, both on screen and off. With Patel and Piper about to embark on a whirlwind tour across the U.S. throughout this week and next with special screenings at Alamo Drafthouses leading up to the film’s debut on streaming services, the two generously spared a few minutes to talk about how “The Ants and the Grasshopper” came together, finding someone well worth following and how Chitaya’s perspective opened the film up.

Raj, what was the initial impetus for this?

Raj Patel: I was tired of being in other people’s documentaries. [laughs] No, I’m always happy to be in other people’s documentaries and call my agent if you need that. But the problem is that when I was in those documentaries, I was substituting for the voices of people who actually knew what was going on in their own lives, and [I came to think] what’s the point of me being a voiceover for other people’s lives? Just be like a woke David Attenborough. So that’s why it was exciting to kick this off with Steve [James] and we started filming in 2010…

Zak Piper: Originally, this had a whole different look. It wasn’t just focused on this story with Anita in Malawi. It was not even a feature film, but a transmedia project with all these different storylines of people doing innovative things as it relates to food around the world. This was one of the stories that Raj had identified and Raj had been filming with Steve, and of course, I worked with Steve quite a bit over the years and then the project kept evolving. We got to this critical point where we knew the larger vision for this project of all these many stories that we were trying to piece together was not gonna be possible. But we had filmed enough in Malawi that we thought, I think we can do a feature here, so we set our focus on that. We started that in 2017, and it was eight years ago or so when I first started working with Raj…

Raj Patel: And to learn from Zak how to actually craft and tell a story by getting out the way, but still being able to tell that story was really exciting for me. [We realized], “Look, there’s still a story to be told” and for us to figure out how to get me the hell out of the way so that Anita’s work could shine was really, really exciting.

Zak Piper: Raj gives me far too much credit for storytelling, which Raj brings plenty to the table.

I sense that both of you do – as well as Anita, in this case. How did she come to the fore?

Raj Patel: One of Steve’s great gifts is casting and when he first came to Malawi, we filmed in a village in Bwabwa, and I was at the front of this room when we introduced the project and here we are from America, and [I was saying,] “We’re here to tell the story and your voice is going to be very exciting.” And Steve’s camera was panning around and the various village dignitaries were standing up going, “Yes, you are here to tell the story,” very excited. And then there were three women at the back throwing shade on everyone, including me, “Like, that guy’s an idiot.” And Steve’s camera went to those three women and he said, “Look, one of these three women is going to be the one to carry the story because these aren’t true believers. These are women with minds of their own.” We screen tested each of them and Anita was the one who Steve quite rightly observed was the one who’s going to carry the story forward, so she was there from the beginning, but she was very skeptical.

It starts out in such an interesting place when I think few, including myself, connect climate issues with gender issues, but was that an obvious way into the story?

Raj Patel: We actually did know that this was going to be a gender film. We didn’t know that it was going to be a climate change film. One of the first things we were interested in doing was to really track the transformation of Winston [Anita’s neighbor] over the years. His was some of the first footage that we got and again, Steve shot some of that back in the day, but the pivot was really to start including the climate change stuff [because] we didn’t know that Anita would find out about climate change and then be so incensed by how crap we are in the United States that she wanted to come over here and have a look and have words with us. But that’s what happened and that’s how we ended up in the United States. She said, “Do you want me to come over there and tune you straight? [laughs] And in the end, we stuck it on our credit card so that she could.

Zak Piper: And the focus was on gender, but also the work that Anita was doing around gender to end childhood malnutrition and this idea that they couldn’t control climate change, so that became a big part of the story because it was threatening to undo the work and the gains that had been made over time.

How did the American side of it come together?

Zak Piper: Luckily, with Raj and his vast network of colleagues and friends around the country, we relied heavily on his contacts to find people and the Midwest farmers were through friends of friends. We knew we were going to definitely go to places [where] people were doing really amazing work and that Anita and Esther [her travel companion from Malawi] would be very interested in, but we also wanted to go to places that were less clear. The organic farm is such a great example because on the surface you think, “Oh, it’s an organic farm, so it must be people of a certain political worldview.” But in fact, [they have] a very personal story of why they’re organic farmers and it’s tied to their religious and social beliefs around what it is that their responsibility is and how their actions impact the world. So it was important to try to give a varied experience and be able to see different facets of what’s happening in this country because that’s more common than you know. And Tyler Franzenburg, who had a large commercial farm, but then also had a small organic farm, was kind enough to let us on his land and talk with him for the film.

Were there any directions this took that you ended up being really surprised by?

Zak Piper: Off the top of my head, I can recall the great difficulty we had in trying to weave these stories together and set up the gender story and all the work that was that Anita was doing in in Bwabwa and surrounding areas and climate change and things that we’re doing in the US. We could feel the strength of that, but trying to organize that and get that complex story and hit all of those marks while also not getting too in the weeds was extremely challenging and we had many, many cuts working through that.

Raj Patel: It was interesting early on, I was doing a scratch [voiceover] on this and it became increasingly clear that again, my voice wasn’t the right one, and we realized that we needed to to go to Malawi and sit with Anita and spend a good few days going through [scenes] from the film, seeing what she thought of it, and we had this very, very lengthy process of distilling what she thought and recording a few different ways of talking about the clips. This was a stage of production that we never anticipated, but it ended up being really rather valuable in also helping us decide what stayed in the film and what didn’t. We got so much on the cutting room floor, but that’s because essentially Anita guided us in what she thought was interesting and what she didn’t.

Was it surprising what might’ve come up as far as what was interesting? I know she and Peter Mazunda, who also acts as one of your cinematographers, are credited with writing the narration.

Zak Piper: We were intentional about trying, every couple of days [during filming] or after some major meeting, to sit down with Anita in the hotel or wherever we could as she’s processing where we’re going and who we’re meeting, trying to get some of that in real time.

Raj Patel: There were things that I thought, “Oh, this has got to be in the film,” and she was less enthusiastic about it. But I think more interesting than her choice of scenes was the cadence of her language that I don’t think Zak or I would have been able to come up with because she’s a woman of very deep faith, so she brings this language of prophets that certainly was never part of the film initially, but it’s one of the reasons why it resonates, particularly among faith-based communities in the United States.

That’s also a point of connection with Peter, who is the son of a pastor in Ekwendeni, near where we were filming and initially Peter was a fixer who drove us up [to Malawi] and helped us navigate. But in the end, he not only became the director of photography, but one of our producers because this was part of our commitment to engaging in non-exploitative [production] — not doing the drive-by, smash-and-grab approach to documentary filmmaking, where we just sort of took a story and ran away. But in the course of the time that we spent there, it was very clear that he was very engaged in the community, not just as a filmmaker, but as just a decent human being.

That sensitivity shows throughout and the consideration extends to the way you’re putting this into the world with a tour of the U.S. in the coming days where you’re traveling with the film for these community screenings before its wider release online. What was it like to put together?

Raj Patel: There’s something very special about being able to do it in a theater and to be able to do it in the Drafthouse as well — I mean, nothing bad ever happens in a Drafthouse. [laughs]

Zak Piper: We’re very fortunate to have Giant [Pictures] as a partner on this and their decision to put this in theaters in some cities was a really pleasant surprise. Knowing that it’s going to be available for streaming on a number of platforms is also awesome because we finished this film just over about a year ago and it’s played a lot on the festival circuit and our partner Peace is Loud has had a really successful run of outreach screenings, so I’m just happy that it’s going to be more widely available.

Raj Patel: And [in theaters] we’re lucky enough to have special guests all the way along, whether it’s Mark Bittman, the New York Times bestselling foodie in New York, or some of the characters in the film who are gonna be there in Los Angeles and I believe in San Francisco, or in Austin, Adrian Lipscomb is a James Beard Foundation legend, and of course in Chicago, Steve James. All of this helps us tie a bow on the past 11 years of engagement that we’ve had with these communities and it’s lovely Giant is allowing us to give a gift back to the community.

“The Ants and the Grasshopper” will have a series of special screenings with live Q & As across the country at the Alamo Drafthouse DTLA in Los Angeles on March 31st, the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission in San Francisco on April 1st, the Alamo Drafthouse Sloans Lake in Denver on April 2nd, the Alamo Drafthouse Wrigleysville in Chicago on April 3rd, the Alamo Drafthouse Mueller in Austin on April 4th and the Alamo Drafthouse Liberty in New York on April 6th. It will be available on digital on April 11th.

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