UPDATE: With four days left, we’re upping the ante and setting a new stretch goal for the campaign: $55,000. Find out what we hope to achieve with the extra $5,000. And thank you for your support!
Pistachio Wars is a documentary that takes a trip into the dark heart of California.
My name is Yasha Levine. I'm an investigative journalist and author. I have covered US politics for more than a decade.
California is on fire right now, but it's only one part of a bigger catastrophe.
For the past three years, I've been working with filmmaker Rowan Wernham on a documentary that investigates how a small group of billionaires have taken control of California's water — they have used that control to drain rivers, fuel real estate bubbles, build vast plantations in the middle of a desert, and left a trail of abuse, pollution, and environmental collapse behind them.
Pistachio Wars tells a wild and haunting story. It's not just a California story, but a story of our times.
And we need your help to bring it to the screen.
At the center of Pistachio Wars are two Beverly Hills billionaires — Stewart and Lynda Resnick.
He has old mob ties. She’s a child of Hollywood whose dad produced The Blob. They live in the biggest, flashiest mansion in Beverly Hills. They hang out with celebrities, give to charities, and have Stephen Colbert pitching their products on TV.
They’re farmers — the biggest and most powerful in California. They have a monopoly on America's booming pistachio market. They’re also water barons. They control more water than the entire population of Los Angeles uses in one year — that’s 4 million people.
For years, they’ve been bending California‘s political system to their will — privatizing water to feed the growth of their farming empire in the desert.
Their latest plan is to weaponize the panic surrounding California’s drought to grab the state’s most valuable water asset: two great rivers that feed into the San Francisco Bay. It’s a heist of epic proportions — it will put family farms out of business, and push life in the biggest river estuary on the west coast of America towards mass extinction.
Our film is a journey into their world. But the story is bigger than the Resnicks.
Pistachio Wars is inspired by my reporting in "A Journey Through Oligarch Valley," a long form article I wrote for NFSWCORP magazine about a little-known but powerful group of corporate farmers that dominate California politics. Our documentary takes that story and goes deeper.
With your support, Pistachio Wars will:
- Expose the stealth privatization of California’s water. Water is a public resource. The state’s biggest cities — Los Angeles, San Francisco and everything in between — depend on vast system of dams and aqueducts to bring water from hundreds of miles away. Although built and still funded by the government, billionaires like the Resnicks have successfully gamed the system, rewritten the rules and turned a public resource into a private commodity.
- Show that California’s constant water shortages are political, not natural. News coverage of the state’s recurring water problems focus on weather and the environment — which gives people the sense that water shortages are natural and inevitable. While climate change is indeed a factor, it is not the main driver of California's water problems. The stark reality is that farms use 80% of the state's supply, an amount that trivializes savings made by residential users. Our documentary will cut through the talking points pushed by corporate lobby groups. The shortages are about allocation, not supply: much of the water is diverted to grow fringe, non-essential crops.
- Tell the story of a modern Chinatown. If you watched Roman Polanski's Chinatown, you know that water heists are an integral part of California’s history. That’s how modern Los Angeles was built. But these heists are not just a part of the past. Pistachio Wars will reveal a brazen plan to leverage panic around the drought to build a massive publicly-financed aqueduct that diverts water for the benefit a small clique of wealthy elite.
- Shed light on the dirty California farming practice of using toxic oil wastewater for irrigation. The state’s powerful farming interests spend big money to present themselves to the public as family farmers — responsible stewards of the land who grow natural produce in a healthy environment. That image comes crumbling down when you see major farms using oil industry waste water to irrigate their crops.
- Reveal the ties between water privatization and real estate speculation. California is a semi-desert environment. Control of water is everything here — and water is a necessary part of any major real estate development. Our documentary will show how water privatization and unchecked Wall Street-funded real estate speculation — the kind that blew up the world economy less than a decade ago — are linked.
- Take you on a trip to poor towns that have run out of water, while powerful farmers expand their plantations. Systemic inequality is laid bare as towns run out of water, or make do with drained polluted aquifers — all while farms owned by billionaires thrive and pump water with impunity. We filmed over the course of many months in several small towns at the heart of this struggle.
- Show how snack food farmers are lobbying for war with Iran. California’s pistachio boom depends on sanctions that block the import of nuts from Iran. The film will look at how California pistachio farmers lobby for war and help drive America's aggressive, militaristic policy towards Iran — a policy that’s currently being advanced by President Donald Trump. Will pistachios help spark another war in the Middle East?
Why this film is important
When people think of farming, they don't think of it in the terms of an extraction industry, like mining, drilling for oil, or fracking gas. But this is how today’s corporate farms operate. In an age of water scarcity, big farms aren't about feeding people or benefitting the public. They are in a vicious race to the bottom to drain as much water as possible, and convert it into whatever crop generates the highest dollar return.
Pistachio Wars is an absurdist tale of market-driven resource allocation. By market standards, the most “efficient” use of California's over-tapped and dwindling water supply is for the production of pistachio nuts — a marginal snack food whose demand was created by a mass marketing campaign.
These powerful farmers will stop at nothing in their quest for growth — whether its a massive expansion of water hungry crops at the peak of a drought, the plundering of the natural environment to the point of mass extinction, or feeding a geopolitical conflict with a risk of nuclear war.
Water privatization is the end game for these same corporate interests. Their extensive farming empires are a means to gain control of the planet's most vital resource. They see the water business as the “next big opportunity.”
Pistachio Wars will redefine how people see farming in the modern era of unchecked free market capitalism.
The story we tell is set in California, but it is ultimately a much bigger and more universal tale. The problems we highlight are can be found all over the world in areas with concentrated agricultural industries that depend on irrigation — from the American Midwest to India, Iran and Russia.
Where we're at and what we need
We’ve been shooting this film for three years. We have travelled all over California to get the story. Now that we have the footage in the can, we face the hardest and most time-consuming part of making a documentary: editing and post-production. We need to:
- Hire an editor to assemble the feature length edit.
- Hire a sound engineer, produce a score, and write and record a voice over.
- Design and create graphics.
- Do a final research push to find more archival footage and original sources.
All that these things take time and money. And we can’t do it without your help.
Rowan Wernham is a New Zealand born designer & filmmaker. Pistachio Wars will be his debut feature after a long stint in the Internet world. His 2012 animated short x.o.genesis screened at numerous festivals including Slamdance, Maryland, and Glasgow, and was a prize winner at the LA New Wave film festival.
Yasha Levine is a Russian-born American author and investigative journalist. His book, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet, was published in February 2018 by PublicAffairs. It is being released in the UK and translated into French, Dutch and Russian in early 2019. The New Yorker praised it as "forceful" and "salutary."
Levine began his journalistic career at The eXile, the legendary Moscow-based English-language newspaper. He later went on to co-found the paper’s US-based reincarnation, after The eXile was censored and shutdown by the Kremlin in 2008. Over the years, Levine has reported extensively from both the United States and the former Soviet Union. Most recently, Levine’s journalistic work has focused on California politics. His work has been featured and profiled in The Baffler, Wired, Slate, The Nation, Penthouse, Playboy, MSNBC and many others.
- Max Scott: trailer score, sound design and mix.
- Brendon Anderegg, Telescope Audio: trailer studio voice over recording.
- Brad Jonas: Pistachio Wars poster art.
Risks and challenges
The only real risk is that it will take us longer than expected to finish post-production.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (30 days)