Grab ‘n Go – Investigative Thriller Follows Covert Efforts to Control the Source of Life But Comes Up Short on Analysis

Image: YouTube/The Grab

Mainly curiosity—along with a nudge from RD—got me to pay my eight bucks to watch The Grab, a new documentary just released on Amazon Prime.* Written and directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the film treats a small team of journalists associated with the Center for Investigative Reporting as fearless heroes for spending seven years looking into the extent to which an assortment of private actorssovereign funds, LLCs, big institutional investors, etcare gobbling up the world’s land and water as climate change makes these essentials ever scarcer. 

Led by a charming and camera-ready Nate Halvorson, the team’s quest starts with the discovery that back in 2013 a company fronting for the Chinese government had purchased US-based pork giant called Smithfield Foods for $5 billion, thereby instantly acquiring one-fourth of all the pigs raised for slaughter in this country. They then combed through the massive Wikileaks trove of diplomatic cables to track down a massive Saudi Arabian investment in Arizona land, where Saudi-employed “farmers” now grow prodigious amounts of hay, sucking up precious water from a rapidly dwindling aquifer.  

Wall Street is next up for treatment. The team comes across an obscure investor-backed trust company that purchases vast tracts of US farmland, which is then leased to foreign interests. When confronted, the smooth-talking CEO of the operation readily admits that, yes, in this fashion the US is basically exporting its water, but he goes on to argue that it’s better than open warfare over the increasingly scarce source of all life (which, along with food, he refers to as “empire commodities.”). 

In dramatic film fashion, scary music and all, the reporting team then reveals that they’ve obtained something they call “the trove”: a massive file of Erik Prince’s emails. We’re invited to recall that Prince, the brother of Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, ran the notorious Blackwater group of mercenaries. The film shows the satanic Prince in his new role as a kind of global commodities broker, focused on taking control by force and fraud of vast areas of Africa for his paying clients. His primary clients, in turn, are revealed to be a UAE sheik in charge of security for the Emirates and (wait for it) China.

Some measure of useful exposition follows. The filmmakers want us to understand that the thing many Arab states and China fear most is instability created by food shortages. The African continent encompasses something like 50-60 percent of “undeveloped” arable land, making it the obvious target of a new scramble for Africa that echoes the original European Scramble for Africa of the late 19th century. What’s more, while indigenous Africans clearly have ancestral claims to the land they use for their crops and cattle grazing, many lack legal title to that land, making expropriation and displacement by global investors that much easier. 

The film also makes the important point that when indigenous peoples are deprived of resources, bad things—instability and terrorism—are likely to follow. The phenomenon of so-called Somali “pirates,” people who were once able to support themselves as fishermen, is offered as a case in point.

It’s when the film starts to wind down that its core weaknesses are revealed (sorry, for the pun: the Center for Investigative Reporting also produces “Reveal,” an excellent public radio show and companion podcast). 

Viewers aren’t given a clear enough sense of the extent to which we should be worried about foreign interests capturing scarce US resources, as against domestic greedheads doing their thing and the “normal” workings of capitalism. The film calls our attention to the domestic investment factor, but ever so slightly, when it drops the tidbit that US public pension funds are also involved in the plundering of Arizona water. Perhaps it’s not possible to sort out who is doing what, but getting it straight matters greatly at a time when Trump and others are fanning the xenophobic flame at every opportunity. 

And when the film turns to its predictable “there’s still a way out” closing message, the writers and producers likewise pull their punches by suggesting that there could be some easy technical solutions to the looming global food crisis, if only “we” would make the effort.

The blurring of dramatic filmmaking and old-style documentary reporting often now seems to require this kind of story arc, with a dash of uplift at the finish, but I would be happier in this case if the producers left us with more clarity, however grim. 

I would not expect or even want an anti-capitalist screed, but it would have been helpful to see even slight acknowledgement that an emergent Western capitalism, along with its imperial-cum-settler-colonial auxiliary, got the resource wars going as far back as the 16th century. It started with spices; then it was gold and silver; then sugar and cotton; then oil, bauxite, rubber, etc. And now it’s the very building blocks of life itself.  

Leave aside the politics. The film’s intention was to find and name bad actors. Its makers found a few, and it’s all quite entertaining. But with the survival of billions of people at stake, more rigor would have been welcome. 

Could it be that the baddest of bad actors here is a particular system that rewards and sanctifies maximum accumulation, and the devil take the hindmost? Could it be that the nefarious foreign interests are merely playing by the same rules this system lays down? 

The Grab doesn’t venture an answer. But how we answer the question shapes our politics, our ethics, and (now) our very existence.

*The Grab actually premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2022, but was only just released in theaters and streaming services this month.