BOB GLINER'S newest documentary, Heifer, begins by outlining the mall-shopping experience. The SJSU sociology professor's point is well taken. In America, we have places called "malls." They are blocked by a procession of furious circling vehicles, much like the bikers driving around that oil well in The Road Warrior, if the bikers had had minivans. In these malls, you are on dangerous ground, caught between angry strangers and their seasonal duty to their loved ones. You must guilt-buy mounds of stuff at top dollar, in the name of children whose tastes you aren't sure of and who are anyway half-buried under an avalanche of merchandise.
Heifer film suggests a different approach. He visits the three continents where the nondenominational, Little Rock-based charity the Heifer Project is donating farm animals to some of the poorest areas on the globe. At their website (heifer.org), the charity makes it possible to buy a goat or a cow in the name of that certain someone, to be given to needy areas of the world.
In the Guatemalan highlands, farmers are working land so steep it would make for a warm hike. The areas where the Heifer Project is embedded are still recovering from the mid-1980s civil war. In Tanzania, Masai farmers are using the projects' donated camels for milk and transportation of waterand to amuse tourists, who they hope will come out to see what a traditional Masai village looks like. Micropatrologists will rejoice on a section about the tiny but ever-fascinating nation of Albania. Under a Heifer Project plan, the locals are swapping their rifles for cows. In the parched Albanian hills outside of Tirana, the project raffles off goat kids to some of the poorest of that notoriously poor country. And in Tibet, the project teaches newer farming techniques to the hard-hit northern ranchlands; nearby in China, they're encouraging rabbit farming, for both meat and manure.
The documentary isn't naive. The officials from the Heifer Project admit that what they're doing is more slow and steady than dramatic. Their charitable work is the kind of effort that may not pay off for a generation. The charity's work has been a learning experience, involving finding out which animals were right for which people and which land. (They currently are distributing 29 species.) Heifer isn't a too-sunshiny look at the agricultural life. We see how biogas collection in Tanzania involves a man scraping fresh cow dung off a concrete shed with his hands. He fills a trench where methane ferments, and the gas is collected in a bathtub-sized balloon for use in cooking food. It ain't pretty. Working in the realm of small-scale documentary, Gliner (Silicon Valley at the Crossroads, Making a Difference) on the one hand reminds us how good Americans have it, and on the other hand suggests a rather useful direction for holiday generosity.
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