Natural Resistance – Jonathan Nossiter
Screened at the Sorbonne Paris 3, on March 20, 2014
It has been said that the mark of a good film (like a good wine) is that the film stays with you; the images recur in the brain and your mind trips from scene to scene recalling details and savouring ideas again and again. Like a good wine, Natural Resistance takes hold and penetrates deep into your being, producing a range of emotions and savours. It invites reflection and pleases the palate with a beguiling charm, a charm based in the penetrating curiosity and willingness to listen that is a Nossiter trademark. Sincerity, intimacy and frank honesty among friends – it’s a simple recipe with powerful results as the film casually yet profoundly and at moments, intensely, addresses some of the most important issues of our time.
But this film in many ways is not a film, or perhaps it’s a new genre of film. First of all, through Nossiter’s own admission, it wasn’t supposed to happen. It wasn’t planned and it wouldn’t have happened at all had he not, perhaps being the compulsive filmmaker that he is, brought a camera along on a tour to visit friends in Italy. So there’s a very organic feeling to the film, a natural evolution that gives one the impression that the film made itself. No plan, no script, no funding. Decidedly renegade, but authentic, real, simple and very captivating. The term he uses to describe this is ‘spontaneous fermentation’, a phenomenon in nature (and winemaking) that occurs when wild yeasts meet sugars, which of course can have sublime results. And the use of archival footage from a range of newsreels, silent films, Italian classics and animated sequences that even includes a film made by his children, interspersed at key moments throughout the film, add a resonance and acuity that is striking and highly original.
Natural Resistance features four vineyards producing ‘natural’ wines, which means no chemical interventions whatsoever – just fermented grapes – who have all left or been refused the DOC, the Italian approximation of the AOC. In France this phenomenon has reached epic proportions, though to my mind this has become a positive distinction rather than a mark against a vineyard. For those who haven’t yet understood that the AOC is a farce, it is important to know that it is a system that was originally conceived to protect consumers against fraud, based in the notion that a ‘terroir’ a specific geography produces very specific wines with well defined characteristics reflective of the constituent elements and characteristics that make up that ‘terroir’.
With the introduction of chemical, industrial methods, soils have died and wines have become oenological creations made in the cellar and not in the vineyard with chemical yeasts that ‘profile’ desired tastes and aromas and an arsenal of additives, correctors and flavour enhancers. They no longer have anything to do with a ‘terroir’ and could easily be made with exactly the same taste and aroma in China. Those on the other hand who work naturally, are being excluded from the AOC for being ‘atypical’ of the ‘appellation’ and so relegated to the lesser echelons of VDT (vin de table – table wine). So what better distinction could there be than to be excluded from the AOC, a club I wouldn’t want to belong to even if it would have me as a member (to paraphrase the Groucho Marx line)?
With Mondovino, Nossiter was exploring globalisation and the power base that pervades modern winemaking. With Natural Resistance he focuses on the environment and the loss of liberty that is confronting small independent wine makers (and implicitly, everyone else who is working outside of the chemical straightjacket imposed by puppet governments in the grips of the chemical / pharmaceutical lobbies). But the film doesn’t attack or proselytise. It doesn’t whine or complain. Rather it asserts the fundamental right to be unique and original. It gives a voice to those who through their acts of non-conformism and refusal to cede to the chemical paradigm are trying to preserve life, biodiversity and taste. But who are also threatened with fines and closure. (A good example of the kind of insane government intervention that is happening in our times in Europe is the current decision to limit and control the use of cinnamon while supporting the unlimited and unregulated use of aspartame.)
Stefano Bellotti of Cascini degli Ulivi is the foremost spokesman in the film for this defence of life and is an eloquent poet and philosopher who happens to make great wine. Standing between his vineyard and that of a neighbour who works chemically and so manages to produce 300 hectolitres to his measly 30 (the standard approach of rape and pillage which destroys the vineyard over time as the soils are gradually exhausted and become incapable of maintaining such output – for which this owner will later pay, so who is the greater fool?), he digs into his own soil which is friable, soft and yielding and then does the same in his neighbour’s vineyard. The shovel meets hard, compact soil that is clearly unhealthy. He smells it and says it smells like soap. His own soil smells like mushrooms. Holding samples in each hand, he says, “la vita et la muerta”, life and death.
He then speaks of how wheat traditionally sends its roots deep into the soil with a network of rootlets up to five kilometres extending over an entire field. The roots of modern wheat only penetrate the surface, holding on to 5 to 10 centimetres of soil with only a 100 metres of rootlets extending around. But what gives a plant its character, strength, and nutritional value is the exchange it makes with the mineral elements, the other rootlets of companion plants as they all transport different sugars and nutrients to one another, sharing in a communal feast of microbiological life that is the foundation for all life, ours included, who sustain ourselves by eating these plants. It is this process that allows photosynthesis to capture the sun’s energy and so store that energy in a consumable form.
Bellotti suggests that this degradation in quality is leading to a dumbing down of humanity; a compliancy and apathy that makes it easier for the controlling powers to manipulate and affirm their dominance. Conspiracy theories aside, it is clear that this degradation in nutritive content and a plant’s ability to store the sun’s energy has a negative effect on taste and health, with far reaching social and political consequences. One need only do a blind tasting between chemically and naturally produced foods or wines to discover the difference. This paradigm of course applies to vines as well with the roots of chemically treated vines staying near the surface to feed on the chemical fertilisers, while organic and biodynamic vines can go up to 15 metres down into the soil, providing a rich mineral connection and exchange that also gives much greater taste and character to the wines. And an added bonus to this deep rooting in healthy soils is an enhanced immune system, which makes plants ‘naturally resistant’ to pests and disease.
After the film, Nossiter spoke at length, fielding questions and comments and elaborating on the unusual origins of the film and the use of the archival film sequences to complement the propos of the speakers. But what was clear in the end is that he has become a dedicated eco-warrior who sees personal liberty as the foundation for human dignity.
In a world where the industrialisation of taste goes hand-in-hand with the loss of liberty, the destruction of soils, the death of ecosystems, ground water pollution and the collapse of bee colonies, it becomes natural to resist…