Mikhail Borodin, Germany│Russia│Uzbekistan 2021
Uzbekistan’s cotton industry has a long history of immense ecological and social costs. It is a large contributor to the disappearance of the Aral Sea, which former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called “one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters.” In addition, the industry operates using forced labor as each year thousands of Uzbeks are forced to leave their jobs to pick cotton. From the top-down, the cotton industry is one of human and ecological suffering as the government requires farmers to produce high yields in the face of water shortages, which in turn leads to more forced labor and human rights infringements as they struggle to meet quotas.
Filmmaker Mikhail Borodin follows the human rights activist Elena and farmer Mukhabbat during the picking season, providing a rare glimpse into the difficult circumstances the workers face. The dreadful living conditions are highlighted as Elena tours unventilated rooms in dormitories, and the camera catches instances of farmhands not being paid for their backbreaking work. Interspersed amongst this are glimpses of everyday life in the region (including a graphic and rather disturbing circumcision and subsequent party).
While COTTON100% draws attention to an industry and an area of the world rarely seen in film, it unfortunately doesn’t do the topic or the Uzbek people justice. The Uzbek workers are only in the background, and their perspectives are never truly focused on. Also, with so little context given to Uzbek culture, society, and politics, it is difficult for the viewer to connect and understand their way of life and what they think or feel about the situation. For better or for worse, Uzbekistan is a place that many people around the world know little about and unfortunately, COTTON100% only manages to cement its backwater reputation and does nothing to humanize or educate the audience on the undoubtedly rich culture and compelling perspectives of its people.