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Documentary puts focus on Mennonites and farming

By: Jordan Ross

Posted: 04/16/2018 10:00 AM

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Film director Paul Plett of Ode Productions, seen here in Landmark last weekend, will screen his Mennonite farming documentary, Seven Points on Earth, at Mennonite Heritage Village next Thursday, April 19.

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Film director Paul Plett of Ode Productions, seen here in Landmark last weekend, will screen his Mennonite farming documentary, Seven Points on Earth, at Mennonite Heritage Village next Thursday, April 19.

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For Paul Plett, tilling the soil feeds the imagination.

The documentary filmmaker, who hails from Landmark, said travelling the globe to learn more about Mennonite farmers not only underlined the importance of agriculture, but also offered an opportunity to explore larger questions of culture and identity.

Soon a local audience can ponder those same questions when Plett brings Seven Points on Earth to Steinbach for a screening at Mennonite Heritage Village next Thursday, April 19 at 7 p.m.

Co-producer Royden Loewen, chair of Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg, will also be on hand for the screening.

The hour-long film whisks viewers to seven locations where Mennonite farmers faithfully plow the earth: Manitoba, Iowa, Bolivia, the Netherlands, Zimbabwe, Siberia, and Indonesia. Farming methods, history, food, and faith are examined in each locale.

"Looking at the world through the perspective of the different farmers around the world, to me is important, because food is so important, and how we make and grow our food is so important," Plett said.

Seven Points on Earth began when he got wind of a research project, conducted by Loewen and several international counterparts, studying contemporary Mennonite communities in seven different cultures.

"I thought, ‘Why don’t we hone in and look at one farmer in each community, and use them as a microcosm for the whole community?’"

So Plett piggybacked on that project, travelling to five locations himself and hiring a film crew for Siberia and Zimbabwe.

The trips weren’t brief affairs, but in-depth visits.

"I spent a week with each of these farmers…who opened their home to me, and opened their life to me," Plett said.

"Meeting these generous, open individuals was really humbling."

A focus on farming also bridged Plett’s professional passion for global perspectives with his personal history as the son of international development workers.

His parents, Menno and Lydia Plett, started out as a farming couple who later spent many years working for Mennonite Central Committee in Africa, where they assisted farmers and refugees.

"I grew up in Zambia and Sudan, but in between we came back to Landmark," Plett, 32, explained.

Early on, his exposure to a wealth of different landscapes and a wide variety of worldviews kindled an interest in filmmaking.

"I always did love meeting different people and learning about different perspectives," he said.

Back in Landmark, he used the proceeds from a summer spent mowing lawns for a hog company to buy his first video camera.

"I thought if I could figure out a way to earn a living doing this, that would be pretty neat."

Plett went on to study at the Toronto Film School, and after graduating, founded Winnipeg-based Ode Productions.

"There’s not necessarily a roadmap on how to earn a living doing something like that, so I just went for it," he said.

Some of Plett’s first projects were promotional videos for relief and development organizations. The work took him to India, Latin America, and East Africa.

He met Bangladeshi farmers batting floods, and interviewed East African farmers trying new drought-resistant crop varieties.

As he listened, he glimpsed common concerns that existed in tension with diverse cultural expressions.

"It’s easy to look for the differences, and it’s a bit harder and exciting to look for the similarities," he said.

That conviction carried through to Seven Points on Earth. Plett said he hopes viewers push through differences in language or farming technique to discover the ways the farmers’ lives "rhyme with one another."

The documentary also strives to "highlight how relevant Mennonites are in the world today," rather than depicting them as a people frozen in time.

Plett said the film can also serve as "a beginner’s guide to Mennonites" for the unacquainted, and a vehicle for expanding the preconceptions of those only familiar with Mennonites in their corner of the world.

"As Mennonites, we’re part of a global community, and that’s kind of exciting and reassuring," he said.

Tickets to the MHV Auxiliary’s screening of Seven Points on Earth are $15 and include refreshments.

An online release is planned later this year.

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