THE LAND (Robert J. Flaherty, 1942)

Robert J. Flaherty’s The Land is essential viewing. Produced partly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it was suppressed when adjudged obsolete by State following the U.S. entry into World War II. Its principal concern is land erosion, especially sheet erosion, a process so gradual as to be invisible. We see stunning images of the devastation wrought by weather and certain farming practices, including a near-century of overproduction of cotton. The documentary is narrated, quite dramatically, by Flaherty himself. Otherwise, except for the dreadful music, the film is silent.
     To wonderful effect, I might add. How trenchant it is when Flaherty tells us what one of America’s dispossessed is saying, thus underscoring how hauntingly mute he is, dispossessed of his voice, if you will. But the greatest coup in this regard comes when Flaherty’s voiceover tells us what a woman is saying about her young son. They are migrant farmers; in his sleep, we see, the boy’s hands are in constant movement. The camera shifts from the sleeping boy to his standing, exhausted mother: “He thinks he’s picking peas.”
     “The land and the people”: this is Flaherty’s theme. “When the soil fails, life fails.” “Almost 50% of farmers are tenant farmers, working another man’s land, living in another man’s home.” Such farmers as these cannot afford to live on the low prices that harvested food brings in.
     Machines are another threat, especially to migrants. Machines thresh wheat, pick cotton and corn. A machine “can pick more cotton in twenty minutes than human hands can in two days.” Men out of work are thus “crumbs of the machine.” Flaherty: “With machines, we can make food enough to feed the world. But what of the people that these machines have dispossessed, the people that still struggle?”

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