SIFF 2023: The Grab

Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Distributed by: TBA

Written by Taylor Baker


Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “The Grab” is a sprawling retelling of the journey that Nathan Halverson and his small team went on while working for the Center for Investigative Reporting. The work that the team did uncovering the current plans of Erik Prince (of Blackwater fame) the Chinese Communist Party, and various Middle Eastern power figures to seize land legally and illegally is worth a watch alone. The film struggles to align its thesis statement, that climate change is the cause of the land seizures, rather than letting the evidence speak for itself.

The documentary’s big reveal is an assortment of 10,000+ emails that the investigative team refers to as “The Trove.” This trove is used to draw correlations and is briefly the source of a data map that we see, but is rarely directly cited. Instead, Halverson is often asserting correlation as causation, and not steelmanning the counterarguments to his assertions. Aquifers do run out, and that’s due to the limited nature of the deposit of water in the table, however, when deserts run dry in Saudi Arabia after years of pumping out water to grow wheat for export he asserts that its from climate change, rather than mismanagement of local resources in the geography. 

When the film attempts to tie in contemporary situations like the war in Ukraine it lags, in its assertions of the North Crimean man-made canal being dammed by men as a socioeconomic strategy the thread that ties it to global warming as the culprit is lost. That’s not to say there isn’t global warming nor that these things each individually range from bad to horrific, but it is to say that correlation does not equal causation, and somewhere along the way both the filmmaker and investigative team seem to have forgotten that. The film is at its best in the periods where it examines the contents of “The Trove,” when it explores the land rights of the Zambian citizens, and the water rights of the Arizonans losing their aquifer for local farming and residential use to nation-sponsored farming that takes advantage of their state laws. While the film doesn’t quite square the round hole, it touches on a myriad of worthwhile topics, if only it spent more time going over specific data.

“The Grab” was screened as part the 49th edition of the Seattle International Film Festival.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on film on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

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