Terra Madre Documentary

09 Nov 2006

Ermanno Olmi certainly has good reasons to be in Turin for Terra Madre. Born in the province of Bergamo in 1931 to a family of small farmers, he is an acute observer of his surroundings. He started to make a mark in the world of cinema at an early age when, working for Edisonvolta, he made the first of his numerous documentaries.

Of all the works in his extensive oeuvre, it was The Tree of the Wooden Clogs that established his reputation as a portrayer of peasant life, winning him the Palme d’Or for best film the Cannes Film Festival in 1978. Director of a masterful documentary in 1992 about the River Po, Down the River, where he adopted an ecological perspective in investigating the complex relationship between man and nature, Ermanno Olmi is now once more turning to related issues. He is preparing to film the arrival and five-day stay in Piedmont of more than 5,000 small farmers and herders from 150 different countries. These representatives of 1,600 food communities are bringing to Turin a message of peace towards nature, the earth and the sea. Their faces, colorful clothing and words will be recorded on film by various crews scattered around Piedmont — at airports, at small and medium-sized towns hosting the Terra Madre delegates, and at the Lingotto Oval.

This free-ranging conversation with Ermanno Olmi on where our Mother Earth is heading gives valuable insights in the lead up to the meeting of food communities.


I don’t think there can be anyone more appropriate than yourself to present Terra Madre in all its nuances. The Tree of the Wooden Clogs is without doubt the most outstanding testimony to our rural world of the past. That is because the actors in that film were real peasants who were intimately embedded in that type of society — every tool, house and cowshed was genuine. The film is a true ethnographic record. On the other hand Terra Madre presents us with the challenge — and also the opportunity—of understanding, sharing and tapping into the storm of emotions created by meeting and interacting. How can you capture a mood with a movie camera?

I can’t deny that it is difficult and I almost have a sense of unease at attempting to describe such a complex event. You need an innate involvement to pick up the emotional tension woven into an occasion of this magnitude. I did not personally witness the first edition of Terra Madre, so I can’t fully appreciate the power and profound feelings generated by the event. I sense a strong impact but have not yet experienced it and that is how it will be until I see it with my own eyes. It is like when you see a couple in love, you can understand, you can identify with one of them and imagine what they are experiencing but it is not the same as experiencing it yourself: the feeling is displaced and not the real thing.
When I am there I will be able to understand the significance and emotion revolving around Terra Madre. I want the movie camera to record the happiness of the Earth, to film this act of love between the Earth and the people she trusts and, through the wonderful medium of film, to show everyone the significance of Terra Madre.

During these last few months when you started to think about the work ahead of you at Terra Madre, what were the main aims you established for the documentary?

I intend to make a vivid film with many voices, which describes a rediscovery of the right path. There is a frequently discussed rhetorical question without a definitive answer: Who are we? Where are we going? In the last writings made by the philosopher Hans Jonas in 1993, it is possible to find some guidelines. In his opinion the racial tensions—which so dramatically dominated the 20th century and were impervious to the progress of rationality—are destined to become irrelevant in the face of a new problem which has emerged in the second half of the last century: the challenge that an endangered environment poses to human beings. In the face of this challenge, human beings for the first time are together. Together they despoil their earthly home, together they share the consequences of its devastation, together they are the possible savior of both the Earth and themselves. At one time it was religion that threatened us with the Day of Judgment at the end of our days, now — according to Jonas — it is the altered state of our planet that presages the arrival of that day, without any divine intervention. So I feel that a film documenting Terra Madre can be an opportunity to think about this issue.

The rural world has a privileged position when it comes to observing the ceaseless change of nature, don’t you agree?

I am reminded of a passage from Virgil’s Georgics, where the Roman poet writes about an old peasant farmer with a minute piece of land, a miserable, infertile patch where he struggles to grow anything. Yet—says Virgil—not even a king enjoyed the fruits of the earth as he did. He was the first to enjoy the perfume of roses each spring.

Many of the small farmers coming to Italy for Terra Madre had never imagined making such a long journey. When I think of my grandmother, you could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times she ventured outside Piedmont. But now our society is used to traveling, it is almost taken for granted. It is difficult for us to comprehend the significance of the journey many of the men and women coming to Terra Madre are undertaking. They’re coming to Turin after many days of travel through different climates and regions they never thought they would ever experience, and are meeting to discuss problems and hopes they share with thousands of others from an incredible diversity of backgrounds. How do you think you will capture the significance of the journey as part of the Terra Madre experience?

I am going to be filming the people of Terra Madre in Italy, but to appreciate the deeper significance of what they do in their everyday lives at home, it cannot be me, with my foreigner’s eyes, who travels to document how they lead their lives in the two years before they return here for the next edition. That is why the documentary will be very different from any other, it will be something of an anomaly. I intend to ask directors who live in the same country as the communities to visit their peasant farmers, to discover their traditional knowledge and film it. The first name that comes to my mind is Abbas Kiarostami: he could document the life of the Iranian communities when they return home.

Regarding traditional knowledge, it is important to realize there is an immense amount of material that needs documenting. But we run the risk that in less than 10 years a lot of the traditional knowledge we are talking about might no longer exist. For this reason the opening assembly of Terra Madre will adopt a message from Claude Levi Strauss who, at the age of 98, is urging a rapid response because of the emergency facing ethnology. ‘When I was born,’ he says, ‘there were one and a half billion of us on earth, halfway through my life there were 3 billion, now there are 6 billion 300 million, and in 40 years there will be more than 10 billion. The memory of that one and a half billion, as it merges into 10 billion new human beings, is going to be diluted and will disappear.’ I feel we need to carry out documentation work. Young people all seem to want to be a Martin Scorsese, but it would be a simple and valuable undertaking to just put an old person in front of a movie camera and ask them to tell the story of their life.

I appreciate the problem, unfortunately the scope of what young people study is too wide, I find the same thing with my people at Ipotesi Cinema. But even our society has a lifebelt we can grasp onto and do you know what it is? Our salvation is food, home and love. Modern societies must also be able to transmit — for example to young people studying engineering—the idea that there are priorities in life and they have to know that these priorities are food, home and love: they are essential elements providing a meaning to existence. If we don’t satisfy these primary needs, after our young people graduate and become top professionals, they will ask themselves ‘Who do I love? Who loves me? Where am I? Where do I live? Who are my friends?’. If they do not know, there is a risk they will pointlessly focus everything on their work and careers.

While we are talking about food communities, the work we are striving to carry out in harmony with nature and its laws, without abusing the generosity of the Earth and the sea, we can’t avoid thinking about how we interpret environmentalism. I feel that it is showing evident limitations in its inability to look at traditional knowledge and learn from it.

I had the opportunity to see this when I made a documentary on the demolition of old steel plants in Sesto San Giovanni near Milan. The remains were dismantled but without removing everything, to maintain a memory of the human toil expended in those places. That world no longer exists, it is gradually disappearing and being replaced by another, but it is not a simple matter. It takes more than two years of reclamation work supervised by skilled technical experts just to regenerate the thin top layer of soil for new uses. It is not easy to return the earth to its natural state. The world needs many interventions of this type but there can be unexpected problems. I remember one morning when we hurriedly got ready to shoot the reclamation work. Some volunteers, assisted by a large array of other people, were attempting to remove a family of frogs — no more than five or six — from the pools that used to contain the cooling water for the blast furnaces. We filmed all the stages in catching the frogs until they were released into a lake in the Parco Nord of Milan. We had just finished filming and switched off the movie camera to leave when an elderly lady came up to us. “Hey!’ she exclaimed. ‘Are those frogs? Now the tortoises will eat them up. As soon as the kids in all these blocks of flats get tired of their tropical fish, their parents put them out into the park and the tortoises eat them.’ All that effort by the volunteers, ourselves and others was in vain. In spite of our good intentions, that’s what happens when problems get driven to extremes.

Let’s get back to the documentary about Terra Madre. You will be needing to think about which people and which communities to focus on during the event before local film directors follow up when they return home. Italy will obviously be included. We need representatives from Africa, the original home of the human race. In the vast expanse of Asia, India alone deserves particular attention as an ancient agricultural civilization experiencing a dramatic plight. There are thousands of suicides a year in rural areas because small farmers do not have the money to pay for the seeds and pesticides to which they have become enslaved by multinationals. The Middle East, with over 20 communities from Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, Iran and Afghanistan, will be well represented. Latin America, a mixture of European and pre-Colombian cultures, needs to be covered. So too does rich and industrialized North America, home to a superpower that is beginning to produce important initiatives such as farmer’s markets or community supported agriculture. How will you cope with the multitude of 5,000 delegates attending Terra Madre?

All the material we shoot in Turin will have to be organized, small excerpts will then be given to local directors so they can continue the work begun by us between October 26 and 30. In my mind’s eye I can see the images you showed me of the Afghan gentleman, austere and dignified in his traditional dress, and the child talking next to him. When I have a scene like that from the new edition of Terra Madre, I will ask the director working in his home country to find the person and to film him in his everyday life, instead of continuing to look to Hollywood. I’m sure he will do an excellent job. In those countries, creative people and young directors are better because they are still rooted in real things. It is inappropriate to call those countries underdeveloped or developing compared to us. It is rather the case that we are embarked on a course of unsustainable development.

First printed in La Stampa on October 20, 2006.

Adapted by by Ronnie Richards.

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