Extra Virgin's Director's Screen Project has a change of program this week from Mundane History to Agrarian Utopia (สวรรค์บ้านนา, Sawan Baan Na), a beautiful, highly acclaimed experimental documentary on the hardships of rice farming.
Uruphong Raksasad directs. A native of rural Chiang Rai Province, he previously did the short-film compilation Stories from the North, which was an intimate look at the fast-disappearing old ways of Thai rural life.
For Agrarian Utopia, Uruphong hired two families to work a plot of land over the course of the year. He thus set the stage, but what unfolds is real life, with no script.
"I only knew it was going to be about rice farmers over the course of a year," he told The Nation recently. "I myself didn't know how it would turn out until I was in the cutting room.
"Everything they say is their own words. I only gave them hints in terms of the topics."
The film pulls no punches as it depicts the challenges the families face as they try to plant their crop with a stubborn buffalo, and work in all kinds of weather, from blistering heat, shivering chills and intense downpours. They also have to forage for food, scavenging honey from beehives, and even eating ants.
Uruphong captured it all on high-definition video camera, to beautiful, jaw-dropping effect.
"The rice field and the process of growing rice are very beautiful, like paradise, but at the same time it's not a sustainable practice in reality," he says.
Agrarian Utopia has been acclaimed the world over. It won the Unesco Award at last year's Asia Pacific Screen Awards, best narrative feature at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival, and recently a jury prize at the Millennium International Documentary Film Festival in Brussels.
Uruphong recently won a $100,000 prize for his short film, Dad's Picture, at the Film Expo Asia, and the short film is online so you can watch it. It makes a great warmup to Agrarian Utopia.
Agrarian Utopia is playing at SFX the Emporium until September 29 at around 7 nightly with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2. There'a a trailer at YouTube and its embedded below.