Review: ‘Grit’

Hot Docs 2018

6 mins read

(USA, 80 min.)
Dir. Sasha Friedlander, Cynthia Wade
Programme: World Showcase (World Premiere)

Grit is sure to be the great eco doc of Hot Docs 2018 and the year overall. This powerful film witnesses tragedy on an epic scale as a tsunami of toxic mud displaces over 60,000 people in Indonesia and leaves a flowing geyser of gritty goop scarring the ecosystem. Shot with poetic grandeur and packed with stirring political heft, Grit invites audiences to see tragedy through the survivors of a community cast aside by their government, stranded and exiled, as they watch the mud rise over their homeland and engulf the communities they cherished.

Supporters of directors Sasha Friedlander and Cynthia Wade (an Oscar winner for Freeheld, which was remade as a drama starring Ellen Page and Julianne Moore) can claim them to be a duo worthy of comparison to Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky with this exquisitely shot film that draws upon the evocative power of manmade landscapes to create an eerie tale of what’s at stake for our planet. Grit finds a subject bigger and badder than the Three Gorges Dam, the steel fields of China, or the blood red river of Sudbury, Ontario, all of which one sees in Manufactured Landscapes. Friedlander and Wade focus their gaze on the communities of Sidoarjo, of East Java, Indonesia, where a gas well built by the oil company Lapindo struck an underground mud volcano whilst pillaging resources from the land in 2006. Grit explains how this subterranean mud pocket erupted, killed 16 people in a huge explosion, and engulfed just as many communities in a flood of boiling mud. 16 villages lay trapped under 60 feet of mud.

Grit tells the stories of the families left destitute by the senseless destruction of their homes and communities. The film sees the fight for justice through the eyes of Dian, a sixteen-year-old girl whose family was displaced by the disaster. Dian witnesses her neighbours shafted by their government and played as pawns in a deeply politicized landscape where compensation is bartered and weaponized, making victims out of victims. Dian is a strong character, wise and resilient, who sees through the false hope offered by Obama-esque wannabes pandering for votes. She puts her heart into poetry, defying the government and Lapindo for devastating the lives of so many people she holds dear—and she channels her passions into education.

Like the waterlogged citizens in Kiribati in this year’s Hot Docs selection Anote’s Ark, the stranded Indonesians of Grit wrestle with the realization that the place they call home has no future. The film scores a sickening interview with an executive from Lapindo, who proudly describes the company’s effort to minimize its damages by denying compensation to residents who couldn’t prove they lost their homes in the flood. (Many residents simply didn’t have time to grab their papers while running for their lives.) Worse is his gleeful recollection of residents who refused to participate in a humiliating exercise where they were buried up to their necks in mud, like 17th century priests coerced to apostatize, to prove their honour and land claims.

In addition to the compelling human interest story in Dian and her family, Friedlander and Wade harness the gut-wrenching visual power of the scarred landscape to forge an urgent plea. The mud continues to rise, and is expected to flow for another dozen years, and Grit watches futile efforts of containment and diversion, like pumping toxic mud into rivers, which will only compound the environmental impact. The sad irony of the mud spill is that the cracked and sun-scorched terrain photographs beautifully. Grit looks as if Friedlander and Wade found their subjects and airdropped them on the barren land of Mercury. This black scar tissue of the Earth becomes an attraction where models pose for photographs and the destitute villagers scrounge for gems and peddle DVD footage of the explosion to tourists.

The mud site is also a boon for artists. With so much mud flowing from the Earth, one might as well make something of it. The film begins and ends with the image of an installation in which dozens of mud figures stand in unity amidst the rising toxic muck. Their palms face upwards and residents offer tokens of sacrifice as they wait for Lapindo to acknowledge its wrongdoing. The mud keeps rising as time goes on and, like the poor residents dehumanized for the sake of their land claims, the statues are soon up to their noses. Grit is another sad story in which human lives are mere collateral damage to a corporation’s bottom line.

Grit screens:
-Wed, May 2 at 12:30 PM at TIFF Lightbox
-Sun, May 6 at 10:00 AM at Isabel Bader

Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit for more info.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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