Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dirt! The Movie

So as I mentioned in my last blog post one of the filmmakers of Dirt! The Movie, Gene Rosow, attended the annual SWCS meeting to preview the movie for us. It was recently shown to the Sundance Film Festival and is still being worked on, but we got to see a mostly finished product (If I recall correctly, I think they're extending it a bit for release to the public).

I'm sure the use of the word "dirt*" annoyed a fair number of the soil scientists in the room, however in defense, the movie is inspired by the book Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth by the journalist William Bryant Logan.

So with popcorn in one hand, and a beer in the other, we settled into the Hyatt's Grand Ballroom to watch the movie. As I said earlier, the trailer was a bit off-putting, giving us an anthropomorphic earth, talking to us about all the good times and then the bad times that he and humans have shared, and getting really angry when humans started doing things like strip mining ... going all postal with volcano eruptions and the like. I hope they don't keep using that trailer. If I recall correctly, they do use the anthropomorphic ploy in the movie, but it's less over the top, and only occurs in the very beginning. NOTE: I did have to skip out to use the restroom once during the film, and if the volcano stuff was used during that period, I missed it ... but I don't think it was. The movie is narrated by Jamie Lee Curtis, though it's not a heavily narrated film.

The film is, instead, largely full of interviews with various experts and people who are otherwise involved in awareness and conservation. Some of the interviews include:

Bill Logan - Author of the book which inspired the movie.
Andy Lipkis - Founder of TreePeople
Dr. Vandana Shiva - Physicist, Environmental Activist
Wangari Maathai - Nobel Laureate and Founder, Green Belt Movement
Miguel Altieri - Professor of Agroecology, UC Berkeley
Peter Girguis - Assistant Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University

This is a very short list of the people interviewed for the movie, the rest you can see by clicking on the link above. The interviews are all well done, and except for one gratuitous f-bomb (it's not necessary at all and that part of the interview is sort of pointless) by one of the interviewee's it is a movie which can be seen by the entire family. For demonstrative purposes when explaining microbial processes, the authors rely on cartoons shorts which are rather cute if simplistic. At this point I should note, if you're looking for a scientific treatise here, you're not going to get it. For example, while the word "soil" is used a handful of times, people (even the scientists) do play along by calling it "dirt". Things are presented in broad terms and concepts, but I think they're presented in such a way as to be easy to comprehend, which will most definitely appeal to a much wider audience.

In addition to the science, the film also spends time highlighting conservation efforts such as TreePeople, The Edible Schoolyard, The Greenhouse Project at Rikers Island, and Sustainable South Bronx, all grassroot efforts to increase awareness of our most important natural resource, soil. As Secretary Vilsack said in his speech given earlier that day, there is a great need to bring understanding to the public, especially those in urban areas, that our food does not come from the grocery store. He spoke to the plight of "food deserts", and how not only does it highlight a need for better nutrition, which in turn will result in better health (lower obesity rates as one example) but hopefully greater public awareness and enhanced conservation efforts. I think this movie, though it does not (as far as I can remember) mention food deserts directly, can help in this effort.

Overall, the movie was very well done. As a documentary I think it does an excellent job in raising awareness and understanding of an area where they is very little knowledge by the public. If this movie can reach a wide audience I think it will do a lot of good, and overall I think it was received quite favorably by those who attended the showing. Personally, I will be purchasing a copy, and if it does not contain the f-bomb, I will be sending it to my sister who show to her science classes. I certainly hope the filmmakers have success with this movie, and hopefully this will open doors for further awareness projects along these lines.

As a documentary, I give this film 4.75 out of 5 stars. The only detraction really is the single gratuitous curse-word, which will hurt the ability of teachers to show this movie to their science classes. If that can be removed, I think this becomes an extremely valuable tool in the hand of conservationists.

*I've made the mistake of calling it "dirt" a couple of times (still trying to get the medical microbiology out of my veins) only to be rejoined with glares and looks of major disapproval.


Genomic Repairman said...

Did they say if there will be any additional sneakpeak showings. This sounds like it will be a good film.

Thomas Joseph said...

They didn't make mention of any addition sneakpeaks. They may have something on their website however, and they do IIRC have a number of clips on their website as well.

soil mama said...

thanks for the review. trailer I saw made it look pretty good. maybe a little cheezy and over dramatic, but sometimes that's what it takes to reach a wider audience.

I personally don't have any issues with cursing, but it does really limit the audience, which is a huge drawback for people who want to use it in an educational setting, or share it with kiddos. hopefully they take it out.

I always get exicted when there's a chance to show the general public how amazing and important soil it.

are you going to give us a meeting overview too? :)

Thomas Joseph said...

are you going to give us a meeting overview too?

To be honest, other than attending Vilsack's opening session, and the movie ... the only other thing I did was fly in and give a talk. I flew out the very next day. I'm not an SWCS member so I didn't stick around to listen to anything else. I have too much stuff going on back here.

microbiologist xx said...

Sounds pretty interesting. I had not heard of the documentary, but I will definitely check it out when it's made available to the general public.
As far as cringing over the word dirt... That is exactly how I felt after the "anthrax letters." Calling B. anthracis anthrax was bad enough, but the second Ba was referred to as a virus, I had to stop watching for fear of having a stroke.