Review of “Earth: Muted” (2021)

Moving picture, 59 minutes

Seen in 2022.

I saw a 59-minute cut.

In Hanyuan County, Sichuan Province, China, local farmers are simultaneously pressured by the urbanizing economy and a decades-long campaign of liberal pesticide use, which has killed so many bees and other pollinators in a local valley that farmers pollinate their trees manually. They still use pesticides, but more carefully, and work to reestablish the pollinators.

The title, “muted”, alludes to Silent Spring (1962). The documentary illustrates that the most basic problem in that book remains current, but it’s all superficial. The emphasis is on the role of poverty and the farmers’ struggle to give their children a better life, in a countryside that is figuratively and literally dying, or was a decade before. It’s shot in fly-on-the-wall style and kept to such a general level that the setting is barely named. As of 2021-01, the IMDb blurb misidentifies it as Hunyuan.

One man mentions having written a letter to the municipality about the pesticide problem, but there are no scenes of negotiation among farmers or with local politicians about that problem: No triage, no tragedy of the commons or prisoners’ dilemma, no long-term plans other than putting the gifted children through university and letting the laggard inherit the farm. There is a warning against bathing in the river, because it’s polluted, but the other knock-on effects that Rachel Carson brought to public consciousness are not mentioned at all. I sense that the team of Swedish filmmakers didn’t really get to know the people or the ecology, or didn’t manage to strike up an agreement with Chinese authorities. The result is a slow pace for lack of information, with very little beauty to compensate. There is supposed to be a 70-minute cut, which can hardly be better.

moving picture non-fiction cultural landscape