Ben Knight’s Mirasol: Looking at the Sun, a short documentary that premiered April 25, tells a familiar story: Communities across the West are languishing and disappearing as they lose access to water. Through painting an intimate portrait of Pueblo, Colorado’s agricultural community, the film shows how water is integral to human connection, nourishment, culture and life.

I grew up on the Front Range, watching drought scar the landscape as Colorado became hotter and more populated. Hay and wheat fields have given way to housing; the state has lost 25% of its irrigated farmland. Pueblo in particular is often drought-stricken, and water will only become scarcer in the future as climate change erases the snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, the source of the city’s water. Pueblo’s agricultural zone is particularly attractive for developers: It accounts for less than 2% of the county’s total land area but has some of the region’s strongest and most senior water rights.

Through painting an intimate portrait of Pueblo, Colorado’s agricultural community, the film shows how water is integral to human connection, nourishment, culture and life.

The central tension of Mirasol stems from water and development. In nearby Crowley County, development and capitalist interests have drained farms to fuel growth and profits, a process known as “buy and dry.” Mike Bartolo, one of the film’s main subjects, a retired researcher and third-generation farmer credited with discovering the Pueblo chile, lays this out plainly. Having everything is simply impossible, he says. Development and agriculture, and therefore the preservation of culture, are at odds — especially on St. Charles Mesa, Pueblo’s agricultural mainstay.

The mesa is located just east of Pueblo, Colorado. The region has a beauty that is particular to the Front Range. To the east, the Great Plains stretch toward infinity. From the city’s outskirts, you can gaze out onto an expanse of pin-straight crop rows and golden prairie grasses. To the West, the Rocky Mountains rise like sleeping giants. Above, the bright sun illuminates a blue sky, which is so large that it feels like you might fall into it and drown. The soil is nutrient-rich; corn, squash and peppers have flourished here for millennia. Water, however, is scarce.

Mirasol revolves around the lives of Pueblo’s Italian American and Latino agricultural communities, which, in the face of climate change-related drought and encroaching development, are fighting to preserve their access to water, and their way of life. The topic is of national importance, but the film is hyperlocal. Its strength comes from its specificity; despite clocking in at a mere 36 minutes, it moves slowly, deliberately crafting intimate portraits of its subjects.

For most of the film, Knight weaves together lives and histories, showing the rich connections between water and land, families, people and culture. The Matellaros, a multigenerational Italian American farming family, eat together and tend to their fields. Bartolo, the retired researcher and third-generation farmer, walks through his farm, where Pueblo chiles spring up from the earth and point toward the sun. They are well-known throughout the region and at the center of a city-wide harvest festival, the Pueblo Chile and Frijoles Festival. At the Williams seed dispensary, a relic from a bygone age, Sandy Williams dispenses seeds, weighing and sorting them by hand. Their narratives are interspersed with archival photographs and painterly shots of Colorado’s High Plains region, conveying a strong sense of place. The music is sweeping and tender.

The film is clearly fond of its subjects, concerned with their struggles as well as their sources of joy. Its most powerful images are quiet and intimate: the Matellaro patriarch, slowing with age, hugging his grandson; the careful handling of seeds and loamy soil; the hard work of harvesting and preparing fresh vegetables. During public comments at a Pueblo City Council meeting, Bartolo’s voice quivers with emotion as he talks about the land as integral to his heritage. He worries about groundwater contamination from new developments, arguing that subdividing land that was once agricultural is not something most of Pueblo’s citizens want. Developers, unsurprisingly, push back. The film also shows the farmers’ passion and determination, heightening the sense of the fragility of the farmers’ way of life.

It’s a compelling story, but, perhaps because of the film’s brevity, an incomplete one. It doesn’t mention Pueblo’s Indigenous or Chicano communities and their struggle for land ownership. It serves only a small slice of agriculture’s complicated labor politics. The film is dedicated to those who grow our food, but it shows only a few scenes of migrant farmworkers wordlessly picking crops. The farmworkers’ ongoing struggle for basic rights, such as heat protections and living wages, is left in the background.

The film shows the farmers’ passion and determination, heightening the sense of the fragility of the farmers’ way of life.

Despite its flaws, the film’s message is clear and resonant: Agricultural land is worth sustaining, not just for subsistence but to preserve culture and connectedness, both to the Earth and to each other.

The film is currently in theaters and will continue to screen in small theaters across Pueblo and southern Colorado, with a Denver premiere scheduled for this fall.

If the film had explored the history of racial discrimination in Pueblo, the legacy of Chicano farmworker activism, it could have tapped into these communities’ ongoing struggle for access to clean water. It could have been a complete, compelling narrative about environmental justice. It’s still a strong film, though other structural questions are raised off-camera: Is it ethical to continue to use agricultural land in this high desert for cattle and alfalfa? What about tribes, which are still fighting for access to water at all? How can we sustain small local farms long-term, when capitalist interests are buying water rights left and right?

This article first appeared on High Country News and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.