Grasshopper Republic


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Grasshopper Republic. Daniel McCabe: 'No matter how protected you are there, the insects are getting in there, so it's exciting and frightening in a way'.
"Beyond its individual enjoyable moments, McCabe’s film is well-structured so that it builds to the magnificent spectacle of a successful trapping night and its aftermath." | Photo: Taskovski Films

While there will always be documentaries focused on the headlines or known hotbed issues and warzones, there are few things more captivating than being transported to a world you know nothing about and being shown how it works. This is what happens with Daniel McCabe’s visually - and aurally - impressive Grasshopper Republic.

The American filmmaker offers a show rather than tell approach as he opens the fim with large wads of cash which are, apparently, exchanging hands in Uganda in return for large bags of grasshoppers - a tantalising taste of what to come.

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Taking his lead from the photographic book Nsenene, by Michele Sibiloni - who co-shoots the flm - McCabe spends time letting us admire these delicate and intricate creatures close up as the young, grass-green nymphs pull themselves from their eggs or straw-coloured adults make their way along a leaf or attempt to gnaw their way out of captivity. At the same time, via the human comings and goings, the filmmaker gives us an insight into the industry that has built up around them thanks to their status as a food delicacy and the intensive efforts to trap them as they migrate in enormous clouds.

Sibiloni’s existing relationship with the grasshopper trappers was no doubt a boon when it came to following their efforts over three seasons. The cameras seem to slip unnoticed into the process which, among other things, involves coaxing enormous generators to work before transporting them to remote locations and negotiating a price to set them up on farmland. Like fellow recent docs All That Breathes and Against The Tide, there’s an interest in the interplay between humans and the environment, and Grasshopper Republic shares their observational approach.

A taxi is glimpsed now and then with the advice, “Patience pays” across its back window - it could be subliminal advertising as it’s something that appears to be of the essence in the grasshopper biz. The equipment is grousy for a start, as we see men taking a make do and mend approach to getting the generator up and running, then there’s the taxing job of trying to transport it from A to B. There’s patience, too, in negotiations, as commerce comes up against fears that crops could be damaged by the lights put out to attract the grasshoppers. Not to mention, of course, the waiting game involved for the creatures to show up - which they may or may not.

Sharp editing from Alyse Ardell Spiegel moves seamlessly from human interactions to the animal world. As well as the grasshoppers, we’ll see a mantis - not praying but grooming - ants with a waste-not-want-not approach and a death squad of spiders waiting for lunch. The animals, in a nice touch, all get a name-check in the credits (species, that is, not Bob or Kevin).

The trappers use huge sheets of corrugated steel, smeared in wet cassava flour with barrels to catch the critters, lit by sodium lights even greener than the grasshoppers themselves. Again opting for a show-not-tell approach we see these lights, broken from their usual casings, can cause health problems for those who work near them, particularly to eyesight. The risks, it seems, are worth it for a reward that can equal many months’ average pay.

There’s an otherworldly vibe to the enjoyably unpredictable scoring from Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe - a synth driven sound that suits the science-fiction feel of the traps that give an almost extra-terrestrial glow to the landscape. Beyond its individual enjoyable moments, McCabe’s film is well-structured so that it builds to the magnificent spectacle of a successful trapping night and its aftermath, a flurry of activity for insects and humans. Educational without being preachy and artistic without being overly fussy, the film like the grasshoppers, is a treat to catch if you can.

Reviewed on: 26 Apr 2023
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Documentary about the business of grasshopper trapping in Uganda.

Director: Daniel McCabe

Year: 2023

Runtime: 94 minutes

Country: US


DOC NYC 2023

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Against The Tide
All That Breathes