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TIFF 2022: Documentary Exposé “The Grab” Details Looming Battle for Food Security

Documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite is no stranger to danger stemming from upsetting those in powerful and moneyed positions. Her 2013 film Blackfish, which detailed the systemic abuse of captive orcas at SeaWorld, and involved no small amount of clandestine shooting, brought plenty of threats her way. But her latest effort, which uncovers the unsavory, trillion-dollar jockeying of various governments and at least one private company positioning itself as a broker and kingmaker, takes things to an entirely different level.

After a deceptive detour of sorts into narrative filmmaking (she helmed 2017’s Megan Leavey and 2019’s Our Friend but was secretly in production on this exposé for six years), Cowperthwaite officially returns to the nonfiction realm with The Grab, which recently enjoyed its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. A real-life geopolitical thriller shot through with a sense of moral alarm, the movie tracks covert land grabs by some of the world’s most powerful countries and intersects with a range of current events which includes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

At the center of The Grab is the work of award-winning journalist Nathan Halverson and a small team of his colleagues at the Center for Investigative Reporting. The movie begins with a 2014 story — the quiet purchase of Smithfield Foods, for $4.7 billion, by a state-connected Chinese company, which effectively cedes control of one-quarter of America’s pig population to a foreign country. As Halverson reports out other stories, including the purchase of a 15-square-mile tract of land in rural Arizona by the government of Saudi Arabia, he begins to notice connections.


The Grab notes that every century is characterized by so-called “empire commodities” — resources of the sort which allowed nations to more effectively control the world. In the 1500s it was spices, for example; the next century it was sugar, then cotton. In granular detail, Halverson’s reporting shows how governments are eyeing food and water security as the next great all-important resource and — even beyond just a way to provide stability and protection for its citizens — a weapon with which to exercise control, or unleash terror.

Sometimes, as with the Saudi purchase in Arizona, this work is done relatively in the open, exploiting the ineffectiveness of current laws which then allows for an inequitable drain of local natural resources. But more often it is achieved through a Russian-nesting-doll bundle of LLCs, all the better to effect plausible deniability. The big battlefield for much of this struggle is Africa, which contains 50 to 60 percent of Earth’s remaining arable land. The problem is that such land is often ancestral, and not tied to the type of modern-day deeds found in many other areas. Naturally, this sort of loophole (and other structural shortcomings in many local bureaucratic systems) troubling sets the table for a new manner of rapacious colonial-type exploitation.

Cowperthwaite structures her film as a mystery-thriller (composer Jeff Beal’s score certainly helps in this regard), and The Grab even doles out a big secret at the end of its first act. Halverson has a bundle of over 10,000 documents, which he calls “the trove,” representing a full year’s worth of email correspondence at Frontier Resource Group, a private equity firm operated in sub rosa fashion by Erik Prince, the former chairman and CEO of infamous private defense contractor Blackwater. In rather understandable fashion, Frontier then becomes the big “villain” of the piece (Halverson and others begin to question their safety), even though the behaviors The Grab raises extend far beyond one non-state actor, however disreputable and dangerous.

In one sense, it’s true that practicable solutions seemingly dance beyond the movie’s grasp. After all, it’s an inescapable fact that, just as with individuals, there are nations with both much greater resources and different levels of moral responsibility that view the world as a zero-sum game. To that end, bad actors will seek to secure their own interests and impose their will at the expense of any and all other parties.

But The Grab is at its most successful tying extremism and social unrest to the simplest deprivations — noting how groups as disparate as Somalian pirates and even ISIS are by degrees born of a common struggle of the dispossessed, of lacking basic access to food, water, safety, security, and an economic future. The movie communicates an urgency about the story it’s telling (it’s right there in the appropriate title) in a way that is involving and alarming without being overwhelming. It’s a less emotionally direct and more challenging movie than Blackfish, but an important one about what type of cooperative future humankind would like to build for itself.