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The Grab

Instead of a feature-length movie, "The Grab," a 106-minute documentary about shady land deals and global food insecurity, often resembles an overstuffed pilot for an over-ambitious new series. The movie’s creators start by making specific connections and anecdotes, mostly focusing on the sale and seizure of land in Zambia and other African countries. Then, they elaborate with unfocused speculation that’s either too vague or dissimilar to neatly fit into their otherwise believable presentation.

Both an overstimulated multimedia lecture and an anxiety-stoking conspiracy thriller, “The Grab” urges viewers to follow the money, look at the big picture, and so on. The movie’s talking points are synopsized and partly dramatized by a team of investigative journalists led by award-winning reporter Nate Halverson and with support from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Halverson introduces the movie’s thesis—multiple world powers, including the American government, are buying massive amounts of arable land to secure food and water for themselves and their people—and then connects way too many dots using a combination of talking head interviews, archival news reports, and a generic mix of hidden, closed-circuit, and drone camera footage.

“The Grab” begins as a story about a journalist (Halverson) who discovers and soon frets about the security of “The Trove,” a cache of thousands of classified documents concerning notorious mercenary Erik Prince. The movie ends with a half-placating, half-alarming call to action implicating several world governments and capitalism, then praises a couple of social-justice-minded organizations and individuals for restoring their clients’ land and water rights.

Halverson often proves to be a charismatic and well-spoken narrator, so it’s no surprise that the most convincing parts of “The Grab” concern The Trove and Halverson’s work to understand and explain its implications. It’s also hard to nod along and wring one’s hands at the same time, even if everything does seem to be somewhat connected.

In The Trove’s glut of private correspondence, Halverson locates a series of communications that links Prince, founder of the notorious private military organization Blackwater, to a series of land deals in Africa, particularly in Zambia. Along with the Chinese-funded Frontier Services Group, Prince has been associated with the seizure and defense of land from its native owners.

The contents of The Trove are presumed to be too hot to handle. For example, during an aborted 2021 trip to Zambia, Halverson and his fellow journalists were mysteriously detained by airport security, who confiscated the journalists’ passports. Turns out that they had all been declared enemies of the Zambian state, though it’s unclear exactly why. They’re told that their press passes were issued “improperly,” but that seems like an excuse to protect the interests of wealthy corporate landowners.

That dizzying speculation tracks, and so do many of the talking points Halverson and his colleagues bring up. There are still not enough specific details to tie down so many wide-cast nets, especially not when topics of discussion include bread basket Americans who unwittingly paid for their dispossession; hapless Zambian farmers who are bullied off their land by armed Blackwater-esque soldiers; and Somali fishermen, who became modern-day sea pirates after their local waters were drained of fish.

There are also too-brief mentions of stuff like experimental/futuristic-sounding Chinese jet packs and invisibility cloaks—in case some CEOs need to flee when local residents inevitably try to reclaim their land—as well as the heavily implied suggestion that Erik Prince and his associates either are or were working with the United Arab Emirates and specifically Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan and his associates. It’s still often hard to agree when one talking head interviewee says, “In order to tell this story, you have to tell it on a global scale—it’s all connected.”

Rather than focus on three or four specific organizations, individuals, or countries, “The Grab” veers from one sensational and/or unsettling talking point to the next. Maybe they could have addressed the likelihood of some of their scarier quotes, like what are the odds that Smithfield Foods, which was acquired by a Chinese company, would stop exporting meat, thereby creating what one interviewee calls “global Armageddon”? It’d also be nice to know more about what happened with Erik Prince in Zambia, or what Simon Mann, an ex-military mercenary, means when he says he knows that Prince is invested in African land because “he’s a friend of mine.” Some follow-up questions could’ve been enlightening, you know?

“The Grab” ends with Halverson and his team shutting the outer gates to the Center of Investigative Reporting’s Emeryville, California headquarters. Apparently, it’s now up to us, the viewers, to decide what we believe. A longer or more episodic version of “The Grab” might have been able to accommodate tangents about pirates and jetpacks; this version of “The Grab” doesn’t even have an unhappy ending.  

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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Film Credits

The Grab movie poster

The Grab (2024)

104 minutes

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