Transformative change cannot be done alone, says filmmaker Raj Patel

In partnership with Huston-Tillotson University and Driscoll’s, Food Tank hosted a watch party at SXSW 2022 for the recent film, “The Ants and the Grasshopper.” Following the screening, Raj Patel, Co-Director and Research Professor at the University of Texas, spoke with Dr. Karen Magid of Huston-Tillotson University.

“There’s a community that has ended hunger by transforming the way that they farm and the way that they eat—plus changing gender relations and ended patriarchy,” says Patel. “We wouldn’t believe that without seeing it.”

Over the course of a decade, the film follows small farmer and local leader Anita Chitaya, who has built soil health, advocated for gender equality, and ended child hunger in her village of Bwabwa, Malawi. Chitaya then travels from Malawi to California to the White House to persuade Americans that climate change is real. 

“We’re told that if only you buy organic produce at Walmart everything will be better,” says Patel, but “the movement work here is something that you cannot do alone, we must come together and hold one another to account. This kind of deep change doesn’t happen quickly.”

The film highlights humans’ capacity for change through organizing, as well as the interconnection and commonality between communities across the world, from Malawi to the midwestern United States.

“Collectively, we have to get with the idea that we’re living on the same planet as everybody else, and we can’t go around trashing it,” says Patel.

Much of the film centers on denial, especially towards the impact of climate change, and makes the case that change actually begins with this denial.

“Denial is a horrible place to be, but it’s what you have to go through if you’re starting a fight that you want to win,” says Patel, referencing Mahatma Gandhi’s words: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Denial is the fight, or the penultimate step before reaching change, according to Patel.

While these issues require immediate action, Patel cautions against allowing a sense of urgency to constrain timelines for change.

“Urgency can be a sort of shock doctrine,” says Patel. “But the transformative work is harder…The film shows in the arc of 10 years how much can happen.”

Patel adds that building a culture of care is another important component of the push for systemic change. “One of the things that’s striking about Anita in real life is how loving and caring she is, even to people who would drive any reasonable person up the wall,” he says.

“Learning the art of care is like learning how to relax or how to focus, no one actually teaches you that. Part of what I have discovered through Anita is you’ve got to teach people.”

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