Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “The Grab” — following up both her groundbreaking documentary “Blackfish,” which revealed how SeaWorld’s use of captive orcas led to unnecessary human deaths and animal cruelty, and her more forgettable narrative drama “Our Friend” — takes an overwhelming interest in journalist Nathan Halverson’s tenacious pursuit of the impenetrable truth behind the colonization of our world’s most precious natural resource, water, by its wealthiest nations.
When Halverson began investigating the purchase of the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, by Shuanghui International Holdings, a company backed by China’s government, he couldn’t have envisioned how this 2014 merger of pig sales would lead to an eight-year journey through top secret emails, unlikely American farmlands, and the distant shores of Zambia. With an earth-shattering story like this, you’d expect sharp twists and unpredictable turns, and factual incongruities that pull us deeper into this narrative’s multiple rabbit holes. How then does Cowperthwaite’s return to documentary filmmaking struggle so much in laying out the complex threads in this critical story in a way that’s relatable enough to make an impact?
The strain partly stems from Cowperthwaite giving the reins over to Halverson. He forms a crack team of journalists composed of Mallory Newman and Emma Schwartz. The trio begin interviewing leading figures in the intelligence communities, particularly retired generals and admirals, former CIA operatives, and past politicians, who can speak on the logic of countries now valuing water as highly as oil. Halverson knows the case inside and out. Almost too well, to the point that we become stuck parsing every conceivable angle of his reporting, especially the leads and false leads he encounters along the way.
The documentary is easy enough to piece together until the trio begin talking about “the trove” (their codeword for a stash of evidence they just secured). It’s the kind of inside baseball language that doesn’t incite intrigue but puts the audience at a distance. The overwhelming minutiae needs a steady, clear-eyed handle on the material to provide tangible insight. Halverson is too far on the deep end to provide us with digestible storytelling, and Cowperthwaite, who spends the movie jumping in nonlinear fashion from one year to the next, is in no rush to make the larger picture easier to see.
Nevertheless, the trove, which we will refrain from revealing too much about, becomes a key element in “The Grab.” The cache of underhanded emails details the carving away of the world’s last arable land and, in the team’s eyes, offers direct paths to implicate the responsible parties. They indicate how China, worried about their population growth, is turning outside their borders for food and water. They offer reasons for Vladimir Putin, seeing an opportunity in global warming to erase his country’s frozen tundra to reveal greener pastures, has decided to import American cowboys to raise Russia’s next generation of cattle (a scene capturing Russians enjoying country and Western culture by watching bull riding is somehow both perplexing and haunting). And they show how America is also getting into the act by exporting farmland to desperate nations.
Water is becoming a geopolitical weapon and the trove confirms as much. Or so we’re told.
Because the trove giveth and it taketh away. The emails provide Halverson and his team with proof to back their research, while sending them in every direction but straight. Theories are thrown around, from a Hong Kong factory developing jetpacks to evacuate high-ranking executives from potential coups. Another theory presents Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as being motivated by a desire to control the country’s water supply, specifically by destroying a dam blocking a river from entering Crimea, which Russia invaded and annexed in 2014, to fuel the region’s agriculture.
Halverson, who is a sharp and diligent reporter, pushes in so close to the subject that he forgets to zoom out, with every clue being myopically picked apart through a narrow lens. That can happen when a journalist is in a story for too long: Every grain is a mountain. But it’s up to a director like Cowperthwaite to know what to mention and what not to include. Under the deluge of information, the real-world effects are only felt in spurts.
“The Grab” works best when the film bends down to the human level. Halverson meets with Holly Irwin, a resident of La Paz County, Arizona, where an industrial farm backed by Saudi Arabia has obliterated the groundwater to the point that local ranchers’ wells are running dry. In Zambia, the team meets with Brigadier “Brig” Siachitema, a local kid made good, who went to Georgetown to become a lawyer and has returned to his homeland to defend local villagers from white land grabbers who are once again devising methods to colonize Africa, this time for its water. One woman describes her entire village being kicked off their ancestral birthplace only to be given tents by the government. The incident happened seven years ago, and they’re still living in tents. She breaks down and cries, and for the first time, you can see the first-person toll such greedy, selfish land grabs have on the indigenous and oftentimes much poorer population.
If Cowperthwaite’s documentary paid greater attention to the people at the center of the agony, such as through a person like Brig, as Barbara Kopple with “Harlan County, USA,” we might feel more urgency and would connect the dots with greater regularity. Instead, the film forgets that sometimes a movie can be so dense it feels thin. And while the craft on display in “The Grab” shouldn’t be ignored — the compositions are sleek, the cagey score smears the facts with an eerie and unnerving bite, and the editing, mixed with the crisp visuals, carry us through the glut of data — the subsequent film is ultimately a bundle of figures splayed across a sluggish run time. What can we grab at? Just implications of this critical reporting.
“The Grab” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.