TIFF 'The Grab': Investigative reporters expose covert land grabs to control food, water supply

(Courtesy of TIFF)

Investigative journalist Nathan Halverson and documentary filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish) are exposing covert acquisition of farmlands by some of the world’s most powerful countries in The Grab, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Halverson’s entry into this story was in 2014 when he started investigating the purchase of Smithfield Foods by a Chinese company, resulting in the Chinese government controlling one in four pigs in the U.S. Then, for seven years, along with his team at the Center for Investigative Reporting, he unearthed actions by governments and private investors “grabbing” land outside their borders to enhance their food and water resources.

The stories featured include the residents in La Paz County, Arizona where a Saudi Arabian-owned industrial farm is depleting the county’s groundwater supply. In Zambia we meet Brigadier “Brig” Siachitema who became a lawyer in the U.S. but decided to go back home to Zambia to work for local villagers who are being forced off their land, with first-person accounts of the immediate human impacts of these land grabs.

On the heels of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, The Grab links the invasion to a motivation to control the water supply and to destroy the dam that had cut off the majority of the peninsula’s water supply after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Additionally, The Grab highlights that when populations around the world are starving and have limited food and water resources, that leads to the astronomical food prices we’re seeing today.

We wanted to make a film that would tell people that we were going to get to where we are today. Now we're here today and we need people to see where we're going to be tomorrow.Investigative journalist Nathan Halverson

“It doesn't have to be this way. There are things that can be done, that can be changed, but where we are today, it's very predictable.”

“This story is being told, but it's not foretold,” Cowperthwaite added. “We're showing a series of actions done by humans, this is all human agency that is causing us to be where we are, and once we learn the domino effect of some of that, we have a chance to right the ship.”

“The difficult part of a film like this is you're seeing the need for so much change. So there's systemic change, there's holding governments and corporations accountable, there's legislation that needs to happen…and then there's a question we have to ask ourselves, ‘how can I do life differently?’... We can just wake up tomorrow and not throw away a third of our food, you can eat leftovers, you can take home doggie bags.”

TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 08: (l-R) Brigadier Siachitema, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, and Nathan Halverson attend
TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 08: (l-R) Brigadier Siachitema, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, and Nathan Halverson attend "The Grab" Premiere during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival at TIFF Bell Lightbox on September 08, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images)

'It's all one story'

With year of investigative work and the collection of what's called “The Trove,” a massive amount of evidence of how these land grabs are executed, a core task in this documentary was to make all this information digestible for the audience.

“It was important to make this really digestible and to keep it short, and to be resourceful,” Gabrieela Cowperthwaite said. “I understand people's attention spans these days, especially from heavy information, just heavy content, and so I wanted to just sort of keep it with stories that directly involve ‘the grab,’ the grabbing of resources, the final resources that are left on the planet, out from underneath people who aren't aware of it.”

“I think in order for you to connect any of these issues with audiences, you have to show humanity, you have to show human cost, and you have to show people fighting it on the ground… You're going to see yourself in one of those people, and that's always my goal,... can you relate to one person in this film.”

“I really wanted people to connect the dots, so they weren't just hearing a story about Zambia and they weren't just hearing a story about how China needs water,” Nathan Halverson added. “But they begin to see it's all one story.”