Online screening programme
21 May - 30 May 2021

The visible heat of lands on fire
by Huiying Ng

Both released in 2019, Soil Without Land and CHÃO are films that detail fighting forces seeking independence in different settings: graced with long stills, scenic views; the beauty of firelight and wood in landscapes so rarely seen as essential to urban life. And they are: the urban has no food without the patchworked, heterogeneity of a biodiverse, agroecological landscape.

With the Shan State Army in Soil Without Land, we see Shan soldiers in training with the army established in 1958, to fight the Burmese for their rightful land. With CHÃO, we see MST’s campesinos planning their farm during a night watch.

The role of militarised defence has become the sole means of defending and fighting for sovereignty. The Rojava autonomous state led the way, as a women-led self-declared and guarded autonomous zone. Is the role of the military necessary in governance? These questions ring explicit as Myanmar moves into a longer revolution between ethnic armed armies and the National Unity Government, and a military government that has disposed an elected government.

Soil Without Land crosses the border of civilian life quickly into the life of soldiers-in-training on the Thai-Burma border. Caught in history, defying the Burmese occupation and colonization of land, we see boys and men trained to be the fighting spirit of the Shan State, a desire to recoup the loss of Shan homeland and non-recognition of the Burmese.

The militarised nature of the Shan army breaks down as mothers hug their sons in a graduation ceremony. Reminiscent of the graduations of army boys, but without the same danger of life: what does Singapore’s army actually fight for, one wonders. Where is the danger? Are mothers’ complaints about the poor quality of life, and deaths in Singapore’s army camps partly the complacency of a middle-class in a neoliberalised economy?

In CHÃO (pronounced show, meaning “ground”), we see Brazil’s MST standing for something different from that chosen by a middle class, lost on the path towards promises of a better life, a promise of postcolonial independence tacked to a handicapped state already indentured to coloniality. The long shadow of rich elites who gained wealth and land—ground—in the colonial era is impossible to erase yet invisible. Their cloak of invisibility is their armour and guarantee.

CHÃO, named Landless in English, does not stinge on the gravity and danger of land occupation in Brazil. Produced during Jair Bolsonaro’s time with his “shoot and kill” policies (not so different from the Philippines’ President Duterte), Brazil was already torn by a legacy of drug-fuelled fighting.

As we watch the protagonists navigate a landscape of plotting, dreaming, watching into the night for intruders, halting a soy-laden train, giving pep talks, meeting family, joining in prayer, hiding their future tracks to keep out spies, and all the while staying where they are, on the vast land, in order to use the law to claim owned but unused land for actual productive purposes: growing chemical-free, fresh food—we see them on a vast land where literally anything could go—they are their own guards, which also means - the only ones to trust are themselves.

With things happening in ‪#Myanmar, ‪#Palestine and ‪#Colombia in the past weeks, and even with a ceasefire between Palestine and Israel—which would very well mean Palestine and Gaza is taken off the media table again until the next bombing puts it back on headlines—these films remind us of something beyond the media story, occupation, militaristic encounter. There is something in a connection with land that the (increasingly) legally landless hold, that people who live in capital centres do not possess, have lost, or are now rediscovering. These films speak to the possibility of rediscovery, wonder, and the strength of a connection with land that goes beyond mere utility.

It’s not just nationalism, or patriotism, or a military, or an army one fights for.

Near the end of Soil Without Land, a song is sung with the Shan State Army soldiers, now graduated; “After all we’ve been through, we remember. The Shan remembers.”

A list of some resources

            Lagier, Claire. 2020. “Constructing Legitimacy? Agroecology within and beyond the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement (MST).” Open Publishing in the Humanities. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. https://doi.org/10.1080/13504622.2019.1687650.

            Palestine through the lens of Edward Said. https://uchri-org.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_Z3NuauuHSCiBLLcejDVgBw?fbclid=IwAR1z69qNY4PnKjauzCmmi6ZV52jHWljqdH4Xv1DbEPzymMvJd5_4Ru2L94o

            Cole, Teju. April 17, 2015. "Slow violence, cold violence – Teju Cole on East Jerusalem." The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/apr/17/bad-law-east-jerusalem-ethnic-cleansing-palestines-teju-cole

            Hong, Lysa. 2015. “Revisiting Malaya: Malayan Dream or Singapore Nightmare.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 16 (1): 24–34. https://doi.org/10.1080/14649373.2015.1003124.

            Stone, Glenn Davis, and Dominic Glover. 2016. “Disembedding Grain: Golden Rice, the Green Revolution, and Heirloom Seeds in the Philippines.” Agriculture and Human Values. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-016-9696-1.

            Borras, Saturnino M., Jennifer C. Franco, and Zau Nam. 2020. “Climate Change and Land: Insights from Myanmar.” World Development 129: 104864. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2019.104864.

            Lamb, Vanessa, Melissa Marschke, and Jonathan Rigg. 2019. “Trading Sand, Undermining Lives: Omitted Livelihoods in the Global Trade in Sand.” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 109 (5): 1511–28. https://doi.org/10.1080/24694452.2018.1541401.