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What Will the Next World War Be Fought Over? A New Documentary Says It Might Be Food and Water

Both a journalism thriller and a call to action, “The Grab” is seven years in the making. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who was nominated for a BAFTA for Best Documentary for 2013’s “Blackfish,” the documentary chronicles the efforts of Nate Halverson, an Emmy-winning reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting, who has been investigating an alarming global trend in which nations, companies, and mercenaries are buying up overseas land. The reason: Because of seemingly unstoppable global warming, the world’s resources are dwindling, which means that access to food and water will become as important in the future as oil is today. And like oil, those resources may be the reason nations ultimately take up arms against one another. In “The Grab,” agripreneur Edward Hargroves goes so far as to predict that World War III could start over such conflicts. 

It's a grim possibility, and Cowperthwaite doesn’t soft-pedal those concerns during a Zoom interview from Los Angeles in early June. (In the interest of full disclosure, my good friend Will Leitch’s book "How Lucky" has been optioned by Cowperthwaite.) Still, though, she’s holding onto hope—a prerequisite, it would seem, for being a documentarian who makes the kinds of films she does. 

“It’s baked into what the DNA of a documentary is anyway,” she says about remaining optimistic. “You never know what’s going to happen the next day. You don’t know if your subjects will show up—you don’t know if they’ll talk or if they’ll ditch you. Everything is a question mark in front of you. So you’ve got to be optimistic in general. I definitely am.” But when it comes to the massive work it will take to repair our damaged ecosystem and combat the land grabs perpetuated by foreign nations—and the United States as well—she’s not naive. After spending so many years making “The Grab,” Cowperthwaite declares, “I feel like the real work’s ahead of us.”

In the documentary, we learn how Saudi interests bought up Arizona farmland in order to drain its groundwater. We discover how Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, led a group that moved into Africa, displacing locals to harvest the resources. But as Halverson and his team report on these stories—while Cowperthwaite films them—they begin to sense that they’re being monitored. Is Prince behind it? They sure think so—especially when they’re denied entry into Zambia, despite having the proper press credentials.

Below, Cowperthwaite (who recently released her third fiction feature, "I.S.S.”) discusses whether she’s fearful of reprisals now that “The Grab” is about to hit theaters. She also talks about what ordinary citizens can do—and why the lessons of “Blackfish” stay with her, even if the problems of global warming seem insurmountable.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“The Grab” is enraging: Global warming continues unchecked, and all these entities are gobbling up resources in order to make sure others don’t get them, imperiling the world’s most fragile peoples. Is anger the reaction you aim for when you make a documentary like this? 

Rage does different things to different people. If it’s the kind of enraged that gets you up off your chair and makes you start looking at how you do life—or explain to other people how they could go about life differently—then it’s cool. I don’t want the socked-in rage experience, which is why I made this film in a very specific way.

Environmental films have been done so profoundly well. But what I’m noticing with my kids, younger generations, and folks who aren’t necessarily in the environmental conversation daily is they see it as this thing that’s foretold—running out of water, ice caps melting. I wanted to say, “No, no, no, hang on. Powerful entities are grabbing up resources left on the planet out from underneath us—largely without us knowing it—so if there’s human agency behind it, then there can be human agency to fix it.” I want this to be a rightable ship rather than having the optics of a film that [says] things are getting worse or out of our control.

The film certainly makes the case that, rather than trying to combat global warming, the world’s nations have largely thrown up their hands and said, “Well, we can’t fix that, so let’s just grab as many resources as we can.” It says much about how society views the odds of repairing the damage.

That’s exactly right. What you hope from a documentary like “Blackfish,” [you] want people to not go to SeaWorld. That’s easy—you can be an activist by not doing something. This one’s asking you to do life a little differently—everybody has to eat less meat, period, end of story. And we also have to stop with waste. This starts with us—eat everything in your fridge, stop obsessing about expiration dates. All these things are things you hear, but that can also make this business-as-usual thing not as valuable for the grabbers. 

What we need—and what this film hopes—[is to] see the world as interdependent. If [some people are] starving, then the human rights of that just are unreal. If you actually care about people at all, you know [starvation] is a horrible, insidious thing happening across the globe. But also, if there’s a place that falls into famine, that [creates] disease—and disease comes through our borders [as] refugees. That [means] conflict in places that the U.S. has deemed geopolitically very important—we’ll be involved in that, China will be involved in that, the UAE will be involved, and Europe will be involved. We all will be touched by this, so we can’t afford to let other people starve—we can’t afford to not care about other folks. I’m hoping that this is a film that makes that clear and connects the dots a bit.

I have friends who complain about high grocery bills. I’m tempted to tell them to watch your movie—it’s not what “The Grab” is about, per se, but on a day-to-day level, that’s what the real-world impact of what you’re saying is.

That’s such a part of it. There are folks who saw this happening while the entire nation was debating whether or not climate change was real—or [were] like, “Oh, let’s just pretend the jury’s still out on it.” Well, guess what? There were people out there who knew it was real, knew it was happening, and were capitalizing on it. 

So, here we are—[higher] prices in the grocery store; this is what scarcity does. Also, how much are you buying? How much are you going to eat of what you buy? How much are you just going to throw away? Turns out, [it’s] a third of it. So there’s all these tidbits in the film that we bake in there that you hope are takeaways: “Ah, this is directly affecting how I go about my day.”

“The Grab” touches on this a little, but do you think the free market has a better chance of fixing these issues than governments?

It’s a very [good] question. Our film was framed as a geopolitical thriller, so when we start thinking about national water strategy, we realize that we [in America] don’t have one. We don’t even know how much water is left in this nation. It’s mind-boggling.

Is the U.S. unique in not having a national water strategy?

Israel knows how much water they have—I think [that’s] because it’s a federal-controlled resource. Most countries probably don’t. We’re at a place where technology could find out [how much water we have left], but building consensus on how to use that water then, we don’t have a history of doing that very well. So capitalism takes over, and the free market takes over. There’s no doctrine, basically—there’s only a doctrine during war, when you’re like, “Oh my god, they’re going to poison our water or take it.” There’s no doctrine when we’re at peace—and, right now, we’re at a fraught peace. And when we’re at peace, we do business. 

Does the free market have to somehow play a role in fixing this? Yes, but I think there’s also an argument that if we’re looking at water strategy for the future and making sure that there is enough for us and that you can’t export everything to [those] who can buy the most and pay the most, then we’re talking about government. So I think there will have to be some of both [government and free market]—and then some of us doing life a little bit differently [individually].

Watching how foreign entities are buying up land in Arizona, essentially sucking our resources dry, it made me wonder, “Why can’t the U.S. government make laws that keep that from happening?”

[Charles] Grassley and [Debbie] Stabenow [are] two Senators, different sides of the aisle, who want to look very deeply into this: “Wait a second, can other nations just buy up everything?” So it has been discussed, but then there is the argument that that’s World War III if [those agreements] just stopped—we would be causing conflict. 

We have viewed water as free—we think of it as just a perk based on your land that you own. It’s this resource that is impossible to transport and impossible to store for very long with evaporation—and yet, without it, we die. There’s not a resource like that on the planet—maybe air. 

And, of course, different states in the U.S. are fighting over water as well. The problem is everywhere. 

And there are big ones that were just jaw-dropping, like Pakistan and India and [their rivers]. Again, this is World War III territory—I mean, two nuclear-capability countries fighting over water. And then there’s the GERD, the Grand [Ethiopian] Renaissance Dam, and that’s essentially a war about ready to break out between Ethiopia and Egypt. This is a geopolitically important place in the world—we would get involved, China would get involved. China historically backs Ethiopia, and we historically back Egypt—I mean, it is not okay for this to happen. But it’s all about Ethiopia wanting to dam the Nile for its own hydroelectric power, which it feels it has a right to, and Egypt says, “You’ll starve our crops, and so we will have to bomb your dam.” And Ethiopia says, “Go for it; we haven’t lost a war yet.” The brinkmanship is galling and so scary. So, yes, it’s going on all over the world. 

“The Grab” premiered in Toronto back in 2022. The film details your team’s concerns about reporting on Erik Prince and whether you’re being surveilled by his people while you’re making the movie. What has it been like in the build-up to the documentary’s release?

What we’ve come to understand is that we’re in more danger when the film comes out because, apparently, a lot of the folks who we’re investigating could be more interested in retribution than in keeping us from letting the information out. Hinky stuff has been happening across our computers the entire time, none of it we’ve been able to get to the bottom of. We did feel surveyed. The Zambia situation [in the documentary] was very strange—getting the call from Ethiopian Airlines telling me, “You’re not going to be able to get on this flight” before we even got to Zambia was tipping us off that people were onto us. 

We do think that there’s a concern, but what we’re more afraid of is not putting the film out because someone like [Brigadier Siachitema], the human rights lawyer in Zambia, we need people to know who he is before anything bad happens to him. And we need people to understand the plight of the farmers in Arizona before it keeps happening. So it’s like, “You have to just put it out.” But we’re constantly sure that they’re onto us. We’ve called Erik Prince multiple times to get him to respond to this—Nate always gives the source a chance [to respond]. He knows something’s happening.

But how are you feeling personally? Are you nervous?

I’m the most nervous for Brig, our human rights lawyer in Zambia. Everything that seems to happen in those worlds can easily fall into the shadows—mercenaries thrive on plausible deniability—so that scares me. But, personally, I guess I’m afraid of this retribution—I don’t know what forms it could take against me or Nate. But the film’s already out there.

Sometimes, I don’t worry that much about it, but if one day a skull and crossbones comes up on my screen, then things change, and I will be nervous. But right now, I’m more nervous for other people. 

Near the end of the film, as Halverson is finishing his reporting and planning to publish, he comments, to the effect, “I just hope someone gives a shit.” How much is that a concern for you, too?

That’s a bigger worry for me. A way bigger worry than being surveilled or being hacked is people not giving a shit. Maybe every filmmaker would say that—every artist on the planet—but for me, it’s seven years out of your life that you have done something that is not remotely glamorous. The time you spend away from your family… If you say [something] this way [in the documentary], you’re going to get sued or you're going to get in trouble or get hacked—nobody sees the sleepless nights. 

[But then you think,] “Come on, I chose this. This is an amazing industry. I love being a filmmaker, and I’m lucky.” But I don’t always want you to feel something when you watch one of my movies—I want you to do something when you watch my films. And that can mean anything from “Go apologize to somebody in your life” to “Go make someone laugh.” But, also, maybe do things the way you live your daily life that can stop wasting food. I feel like there are ways that we can do life better due to having all this knowledge—I want people to do those things.

The film company Participant, which focused on making movies that promoted social change, recently announced it was shutting down after 20 years. Participant is releasing “The Grab.” What is the impact of losing companies like that on the films you’re interested in making?

It’s a tremendous loss, not just because of the amazing people working there trying to make the world a better place and do the film with that in mind. I think it sends a message to the world that we’re at a time where it doesn’t matter what we do; we’re not going to fix anything. What I know to be true about everybody that I talk to and the people in my world is the opposite of that—everybody cares quite a bit. We are just confused—we’re misguided, I think. And I think a shared story is lacking, especially in this nation. We don’t have a shared story of “This is not okay. Let’s make this better.” We need to get back to that place because I truly believe people care—and I truly believe, if they know, they will want to make a difference. I’m hoping the Participant vacuum is filled quickly.

You had an amazing response to “Blackfish,” which brought about real change in the world. It’s rare for a documentary to have such a profound and instant impact. Have you had to manage your expectations for what “The Grab” can do?

I knew right from the get-go that this wasn’t going to be a film that would easily affect change in the same way that “Blackfish” did. But I will say that when I began making “Blackfish,” there were so many people—even animal activists—who were saying, “Good luck, [SeaWorld] has been around for 50 years, you don’t think all these years we haven’t been trying to stop them from doing what they’re doing?” Everybody told me that—and I, at that point, was like, “You know what? I’m just going to tell a good story. I’m going to tell it straight and make it entertaining.” And the result was that we had a shared story that people from red states, people from blue states, were saying: “We like animals, and you just showed us that they’re in distress at this place we’ve been going to our whole lives. That is 100 percent wrong in every way that something can be wrong.” One movie—with the help of so many people and so much information that I wouldn’t have had at the time [I made “Blackfish”]—was able to make this change. 

So I do have this feeling that burns inside me a little bit: “No, I promise, [a documentary] can work.” I’ve seen it with my own eyes that a movie can do something, can shake things up and can help us do life differently. “The Grab” is much harder to be able to say those things about, but I do still have a memory of it [having] worked in spite of all that. I think there’s always a chance.

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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