‘The Grab’ Helmer Details Danger During Filming of the Explosive Doc That Bows in Toronto

In 2013, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary “Blackfish” uncovered the disturbing underbelly of SeaWorld wild-life park and subsequently brought about major changes to the organization. Nine years later, the director is at TIFF with “The Grab,” which exposes various governments, private investors and mercenaries from around the world that are working to seize food and water outside their borders to meet increasing shortages at the expense of entire populations. These groups are establishing themselves as the new Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), where the future world powers will be those who control not oil but food. The doc, which is seeking distribution, follows award-winning journalist Nathan Halverson and his team at the Center for Investigative Reporting as they crack open the land-grab story based on leaked documents. Halverson began writing about food grabs in 2014 after a Chinese company purchased Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer. The $4.7 billion purchase of Smithfield Foods was supported by the Chinese government, which now controls one out of four American pigs. “The Grab” is a global thriller that reveals one of the world’s biggest and least-known threats. Cowperthwaite spoke with Variety about how she got involved with the project and what she hopes TIFF audiences will take away from “The Grab,” which screens Sept. 8.  

When did you start working on this doc?

In 2016.

Throughout the doc, it is clear that Halverson is worried that his phone calls are being tapped, his computer is being hacked and he is being followed. Were you also concerned about the same things while filming?

Yes. We did major diagnostics on all of our computers and our cell phones. We were advised never to have conversations in a room with a window because of surveillance possibilities.

There is a scene in “The Grab” when Halverson uncovers “the trove,” which is thousands of pages of leaked documents pertaining to governments and powerful companies’ illicit plans. The documents also contained classified cables from the U.S. State Department that detail the growing anxiety of wealthy countries over looming water and food shortages. Was that scene scary to film?

Definitely, because the people involved in the trove have their hands in so many different powerful industries. We wanted to get the movie made and out there and out from under a cloak of secrecy very quickly because once it is out there if something bad happens to us, people will know there was a smoking gun.

Was exposing the underbelly of SeaWorld easier than revealing covert land grabs by some of the world’s most powerful countries, including Saudi Arabia, which the film describes as a country with plans to support the acquisition of food and water resources around the world?

Absolutely. “Blackfish” was easier in that it was black and white. It felt very clear that what was happening in that park was wrong in every way. So, it was about unearthing the facts. It was straightforward, and this film is not that. This documentary is a complex labyrinth of a geopolitical thriller. It’s a much scarier minefield to navigate. But I think that it was necessary to do whatever we could to unearth what’s happening across the globe and to reveal who controls food in the future.

What are you hoping TIFF audiences take away from “The Grab”?

Tackling the entire world’s inner workings as a topic means that the solutions are necessarily going to be more complex. It’s not going to be simply, “Don’t go to SeaWorld.” This is about consuming differently and farming differently. We can hold governments and corporations accountable. We can drive less and walk more. If people tap into just one of those things, then this film has done some work in the world. But I honestly think it’s going to be up to individual responses.