Alan Weisman at Great Ziggurat of Ur, Dhi Qar Province, Iraq, in March 2022.

“I’m a nonfiction author whose success owes enormously to fiction,” Alan Weisman writes on the new book recommendation website “Reading great novelists has taught me to obsessively seek exactly the right words, to fine-tune the cadence of each sentence, and to heed overall structural rhythm; continually, I return to the fount of fiction for language and inspiration.”

Fiction can also be a source of insight on the most urgent challenges facing the world, he writes. He goes on to describe five “astonishing novels” he turns to “to help grasp the critical times we’re living in.”

Read his recommendations here.

An archaeological dig in Uruk, Iraq, the Sumerian city where writing was invented. The once-great city is now a ruin. Photo by Alan Weisman.

In an op-ed for Salon, Homelands’ Alan Weisman says the US must not be tempted to pump more gas to compensate for supply disruptions caused by the war in Ukraine. The author of the bestselling The World Without Us writes that a recent visit to a polluted, overheated, and dysfunctional Iraq provided yet more evidence of the existential threat posed by fossil fuels.

“We’ve blown so many previous chances” to break our addiction to petroleum, he writes. “We will never have this chance again.”

Read the article here.

Dmitry Bykov: “I write every day because I feel like my writing replaces all these lies, all these wrong words produced by Russian power.” Photo by Jonathan Miller.

As one of Russia’s best-known public intellectuals, the poet, novelist, and literary critic Dmitry Bykov has long been a fixture on television, radio, social media, and in lecture halls around his country. His satirical poems and sharp-edged commentaries have often taken aim at President Vladimir Putin.

Putin’s government has gone to great lengths to silence him. In 2019, Bykov was poisoned on a flight to a speaking engagement and spent five days in a coma. An independent investigation blamed the same security service unit that poisoned opposition politician Alexei Navalny. More recently, Bykov was banned from appearing on state television or radio and from teaching at state universities. Spies attended his lectures and reported back to their superiors. Officials labeled him an “enemy of the people.” Five of the media outlets with which he has worked have been shut down.

In February, just days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Bykov secured a U.S. visa and left for Ithaca, New York, where he is an Open Society University Network fellow at Cornell University. His main goal, he says, is to continue to write and speak out.

Bykov is the subject of a profile by Homelands’ Jonathan Miller, who was active in bringing him to Ithaca. He tells Miller that societies need writers to help them imagine the future, but “the future is the most forbidden, the most banned topic in Russia.” You can read the full article here.

Sugar cane cutters on a plantation owned by Central Romana Corporation in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Pedro Farias-Nardi for Mother Jones.

Homelands’ Sandy Tolan, Haitian-Dominican journalist Euclides Cordero Nuel, and Reveal‘s Michael Montgomery have won the Morton Frank Award from the Overseas Press Club of America for their investigative reporting on the treatment of sugar workers on plantations in the Dominican Republic.

The award recognizes the “best international business news reporting in TV, video, radio, audio or podcast.” It was Tolan’s second OPC award.

Tolan and Cordero Nuel collaborated on “The Bitter Work Behind Sugar,” an hour-long episode of Reveal, the podcast and radio show produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting. The two also co-wrote “The High Human Cost of America’s Sugar Habit” for Mother Jones magazine in September 2021.

The judges wrote: “This comprehensive investigation by Sandy Tolan and Euclides Cordero Nuel took listeners deep into the sugar cane harvesting camps manned by Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic. The reporting, which has prompted scrutiny from Congress and the Department of Labor, documented workers enduring $4 a day wages, staggering debt, substandard housing and woeful medical care while enhancing Central Romana Corp.’s profitability.”

The OPC announcement is here.

Pedro Molina Inktobers
Nicaraguan cartoonist Pedro X. Molina has continued to work from exile in the United States thanks in part to support from Ithaca City of Asylum.

In the latest episode of the Peace Talks Radio public radio show and podcast, Homelands’ executive director and senior producer Jonathan Miller looks at cities of asylum (also known as cities of refuge), communities that put out the welcome mat for writers, artists, journalists, and human rights defenders whose work puts them at risk in their home countries. 

As guest host, Miller interviews former Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) artist-in-residence Pedro X. MolinaCity of Asylum Pittsburgh co-founder Henry Reese, and International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) program director Elisabeth Dyvik. Miller is a board member and former board chair of the Ithaca group.

You can listen to the hour-long program here.

Molina is a political cartoonist who fled Nicaragua during a violent crackdown on dissent and came to Ithaca with his family with help from ICOA. He spent two years as a visiting scholar at Ithaca College. Today he is an Artist Protection Fund Fellow in residence at Cornell University’s Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program.

Reese and his wife, Diane Samuels, heard Indian author Salman Rushdie describe the nascent cities of asylum movement in 1997, soon after he had come out of hiding after the 1989 fatwa issued against him by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran after the publication of the novel The Satanic Verses. They decided to renovate a run-down house they had purchased near their home in Pittsburgh and make it available to an exiled writer. Since then, City of Asylum Pittsburgh has grown into a major cultural institution, with six houses for at-risk writers, an event space and bookstore, and year-round programming that celebrates the freedom to create. 

Based in Stavanger, Norway, ICORN is a network of more than 70 cities worldwide where threatened writers, artists, and journalists can live and work in safety. Elisabeth Dyvik has been involved in artist protection work for more than 25 years.

Ithaca, Pittsburgh, and Detroit are the only U.S. members of the ICORN network. Programs in Las Vegas, Virginia, and Arkansas also provide two-year residencies for writers and artists fleeing persecution.

In addition to his work with Homelands and Ithaca City of Asylum, Miller is founder and co-director of Story House Ithaca, a community arts organization devoted to bringing people together around stories of all kinds.

A settler drives a motorcycle through a burning section of rainforest.
A settler named Martins drives through a newly opened portion of the rainforest. “The Territory” filmmakers witnessed a high-stakes land conflict from both sides.

“The Territory,” a documentary about a Brazilian land conflict with global ramifications, won the Audience Award for World Documentary Cinema at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Festival judges also gave the film a special jury award for documentary craft.

Homelands Productions served as fiscal sponsor for the project, helping the filmmakers raise funds through grants and donations at a time when they were relying on volunteer labor and credit card debt. National Geographic announced that it had acquired worldwide rights to the film shortly after its premiere at the festival.

“The Territory” is the first feature documentary directed by Alex Pritz, who co-founded the production company Documist with producer Will N. Miller. Pritz and Miller worked closely with members of the Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous group in Rondônia state in Brazil, letting them and their allies tell their story. Crucial portions of the film are shot by Tangae Uru-eu-wau-wau, who gets cinematography credits.

An international team of producers, editors, composers, and sound designers came on board to help finish the film.

“The Territory” has received glowing reviews in the entertainment press. For a helpful synopsis, see this piece in the Hollywood Reporter. For more about the collaborative filmmaking process, listen to this interview on the Pure Nonfiction podcast.

motorcycle in fire
A land invader rides on a new road illegally built through Indigenous territory in Rondônia, Brazil.

National Geographic announced this week that it had purchased the worldwide rights to the documentary “The Territory,” calling it “an urgent story of courage and resilience, beautifully told.” The film was directed by Alex Pritz of the production company Documist and co-produced by the Indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau people of northern Brazil.

“We are honored to bring the story of the Uru-eu-wau-wau people to the world and help further the conversation and raise awareness around the endangered Amazon rainforest and its indigenous people,” said Carolyn Bernstein, National Geographic’s executive vice president of Global Scripted Content and Documentary Films.

National Geographic, which is controlled by The Walt Disney Company, is expected to distribute the film in theaters before releasing it on its streaming platforms. Activists Bitate Uru-eu-wau-wau and Neidinha Suruí, both featured in the film, will join an impact campaign in Brazil, the U.S., and other countries.

Homelands Productions served as the project’s fiscal sponsor during development and production, allowing it to receive foundation grants and individual donations.

“The Territory” documents a conflict between the 180-person Uru-eu-wau-wau and impoverished farmers who invade their land with the encouragement of right-wing President Jair Bolsinaro. The film spends most of its time with the Uru-eu-wau-wau and their allies, but it also embeds with the land invaders, giving them a chance to describe their motivations and defend their actions.

In interviews, Pritz has said that the filmmakers wanted to show how industrialists and large landowners take advantage of landless peasants who clear and occupy Indigenous territory. He also calls attention to the parallels between the the Amazon today and the 19th century American West, where settlers were rewarded for seizing land from native populations and genocide was de facto government policy.

When COVID threatened the filming as the land conflict was reaching its peak, the filmmakers provided the Uru-eu-wau-wau with cameras and training. Footage shot by young Indigenous land defenders anchors the final portion of the film and becomes a plot point in itself, demonstrating the power of well-shot video to sway public opinion.

The film has received rapturous reviews since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 22. Variety called it “an urgent environmental docu-thriller… [r]iveting and despairing in equal measure.”

IndieWire described it as “Gorgeously [and] ingeniously conceived,” a film that paints “an intimate first-hand portrait of joy, pain, and community, before bursting with rip-roaring intensity as it captures a high-stakes struggle for survival unfolding in the moment.”

The Canadian film magazine POV called it “Fearless filmmaking…. a thrilling feat that sees art and activism collide,” and suggested that it “be studied as an example of engaged collaborative filmmaking.”

In an article in Deadline featuring an interview with Pritz about the filmmaking process, writer Matthew Carey says the film “explores not only what is at stake for the indigenous group but for humanity in general.”

“This story is about the climate and about the planet and these really huge forces,” Pritz tells Carey, “[b]ut it’s also about the individual characters.” He says the team tried “to build a visual language where we can move between satellite imagery of the continent where you see, over 30 years, how many trees have been lost and what this really looks like and then go all the way down to like one caterpillar and really just focus on that.”

Haitian workers gather by a company-owned house that was destroyed in November. Photo by Pedro Farias-Nardi for Mother Jones.

The Central Romana Corporation destroyed a workers’ encampment in the Dominican Republic in November, two months after damning reports on conditions for Haitian cane cutters were published by Homelands’ Sandy Tolan. Residents say the destruction of houses and their forced removal were unannounced, according to an update by Tolan that appeared in Mother Jones in December.

The settlement, known to residents as Batey Hoyo de Puerco, or Pig Hole, was home to an estimated 230 Haitian workers and their families. Representatives of the company admit to having “eliminated” the encampment and relocating workers to newer housing. Some residents say they were not given time to recover their belongings before the demolition began.

In an hour-long program for the public radio program and podcast Reveal and a feature story in Mother Jones, Tolan described worker camps without plumbing, electricity, or other basic services. Both pieces were co-reported by Haitian-Dominican journalist Euclides Cordero Nuel.

The reports, coupled with an investigation of Central Romana by a team of reporters from The Washington Post, prompted the chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade to call for a “swift and thorough investigation” into the labor practices of large sugar producers in the Dominican Republic in a statement and press conference on October 25.