In 1920, Dutch workers embarked on a massive project of reclaiming fertile land from the sea, draining it for agricultural use, and closing off the Zuiderzee, an inlet of the North Sea, to prevent flooding. Largely fashioned from his own material, Joris Ivens created Nieuwe gronden, a hymn to both humanity’s struggle against Nature and the combined efforts of engineering and labor that sometimes succeed at this struggle. By 1932, “3,680 acres have been planted. Ten thousand workers working in two shifts, 12 hours a day for 120 months, have conquered new ground. . . . However, the wheat of the world is not raised for food but for speculating.” This shifts the focus of Ivens’s brilliant documentary from the harvesting of wheat to the withholding of wheat from the market, calculated to keep the price of wheat high. Newsreel testimony of the current worldwide hunger crisis of arrives in the film’s stunning final movement.
Headlines: ENORMOUS GRAIN SURPLUSES, GRAIN PRICES AT RECORD LOW, GRAIN MARKET COLLAPSES, MILLIONS OF TONS OF HIDDEN GRAIN LIE ROTTING.” Ivens inserts a new shot to accompany the narration, “There is too much grain and not enough work”: in long-shot, against a cloudy sky (symbolizing the Depression), a line of men walk in single file into an unseen future.
More headlines: CHEMICALS USED TO RENDER GRAIN INEDIBLE, DESTRUCTION OF HARVEST. This in effect mocks the long, hard efforts of the Dutch workers we watched earlier. The narrator notes: “We’re bursting with grain! Thirty-one million unemployed are starving worldwide.” There is a massive hunger march in the U.S., where greedy capitalism is up to the same tricks at humanity’s expense. Ivens inserts a shot of a starving child into a litany of crops that are being burned or tossed into the sea.
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