Menus Subscribe Search

Celebrating Earth Day with ‘DIRT! The Movie’

• April 21, 2010 • 5:00 AM

“DIRT! The Movie” links hope for the future with the earth beneath our feet. The documentary makes its national debut on PBS as an Earth Day special.

We think that diamonds are very important, gold is very important, all these minerals are very important,” says Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan Nobel Peace laureate who helped women in her country plant more than 40 million trees. “We call them precious minerals. … But that part of these minerals that is on top, like it is the skin of the Earth, that is the most precious of the commons.”

Resplendent in a yellow dress and head wrap, Maathai is the moral center of DIRT! The Movie, a kaleidoscopic celebration of the saviors of the soil, from the plains of Africa to the sidewalks of The Bronx. The documentary, which makes a fitting national debut as a PBS Earth Day special, is part science, part protest and part call to action. It stars dirt as the Earth’s “living, breathing skin.”

The founder of the Green Belt Movement in Africa, Maathai has spent a lifetime putting a green dress on a continent plagued by drought, famine and war. And if Maathai is the oracle of DIRT!, the microorganisms in soil, a virtual cast of billions, are its chorus. Making a groundbreaking appearance here in animation, they are cute little guys who grimace when someone calls them “stupid,” gasp when they are sprayed with pesticides and cheer when a bulldozer rips away the pavement above their heads.

They unanimously vote humans off the planet, too. That’s after grim scenes of mountaintops being dynamited for coal in Appalachia, rain forests being cut down for farmland in Brazil and Indian widows in mourning for their late husbands, farmers who committed suicide because they were bankrupt.

By turns shocking, sentimental, goofy and dead serious, DIRT! The Movie takes a ground-level approach to the ravages of industrialized agriculture, climate change and world poverty. What links these calamities, it says, is abuse of the soil.

Filmmakers Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow, both Hollywood veterans, loosely based their movie on Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, a book by William Bryant Logan, an urban arborist. “This was the most difficult film that we ever undertook,” Rosow says. “How do you make a film about dirt interesting and not too narrowly scientific? There’s a risk in doing something you’ve never seen done before and figuring out how to be creative.”

In the film, Logan tells us he decided to write a book about dirt because everywhere he went in New York, “people didn’t seem to believe in it. … People didn’t seem to believe that nature existed at all.”

Cut to Logan’s story about a Chevy truck that sat abandoned under a maple tree in New York City while its owner recovered from an accident. “In the back of the truck, open to the air and the sunlight and the rain, nature’s motor was emphatically running, as fallen leaves, Styrofoam cups, Chinese menus and pigeon droppings turned into a garden,” says actress Jamie Lee Curtis, the film’s narrator, while dirt and plants magically appear in animation in the pickup bed. “The process that turns garbage into a garden is central to our survival. We depend on dirt to purify and heal the systems that sustain us.”

Also in animation, the film retells ancient creation myths that tied humans to clay. Then we hear from the real-life pilgrims at El Santuario de Chimayó in New Mexico, where the dirt from a back room of the Catholic chapel is believed to have healing powers. “It gives us, like, a good sense of the Holy Spirit,” a boy says.

DIRT! presents these spiritual connections as part of a dire warning: People can choose to revere the land as a Garden of Eden and reap the fruit of its abundance, shown here in organic orchards and fields of grain, or they can continue to rape the land and suffer the consequences — food riots in Haiti, war in the Sudan and fish die-offs in the Gulf of Mexico.

“This is a fabric of life being torn apart that can never be put back together again,” David Orr, a professor of environmental studies at Oberlin College, says of modern coal mining operations. “Mountains are literally being cut off and leveled, and they’re being destroyed in the name of cheap electricity. It isn’t cheap at all. It’s unbelievably expensive.”

Similarly, Andy Lipkis, president and founder of TreePeople, denounces the city as a “dead piece of inert concrete.” Lipkis founded TreePeople, a nonprofit group, to promote the expansion of the “urban forest” in Los Angeles. “L.A. itself spends a billion dollars per year to bring in water from as far away as Wyoming and Utah, all over,” Lipkis says. “We don’t need to. We have half the water falling here now, but because we’ve sealed the dirt and sent it away, 20 percent of our electricity is to bring water here. So when you turn on the tap, it’s a climate change event.”

Lipkis, Orr, Logan and Maathai are among 20 eco-activists who appear in the film to explain what’s gone wrong with the soil and how to make it right again. Among the featured champions of dirt are famed restaurateur Alice Waters of Berkeley, the founder of The Edible Schoolyard, a program in which middle-school students raise their own fruits and vegetables and cook them; Vandana Shiva of India, the founder of Navdanya, a movement that promotes the use of native seeds; Sebastiao Salgado of Brazil, a photojournalist who documents the consequences of poverty and drought; and Majora Carter of New York, the founder of Sustainable South Bronx, an organization that brings green jobs to the ghetto.

After the movie’s world premier at the Sundance Film Festival last year, the European Parliament requested a special screening, and it was translated into French, German, Italian and Spanish for the deputies. “I was sort of flabbergasted,” Rosow says.

The filmmakers hope the U.S. Congress will take note, too. But they tried to avoid taking positions in the film that would pit groups of people against each other. “As a nonprofit, we’re concerned with education in the broadest sense,” Rosow says. “Rather than go off on political agendas and diatribes, we wanted to reach beyond a committed audience of environmental thinkers and activists.”

In trying to reach that wider audience, however, DIRT! presents perhaps too many eco-activists for a one-hour show: It’s hard to absorb everything they say in one sitting. And in the absence of a political message, nonprofit foundations appear here as the primary agents of global change in society’s relationship to the land, an unlikely real-world scenario.

Avoiding politics also deprives viewers of important information. We are not told, for example, that Maathai fought fierce political battles in Kenya for democracy, the environment and women’s rights over the course of 30 years, enduring arrest, jail, slander, eviction and police beatings. She served in the Kenyan Parliament from 2002 to 2005 and was assistant minister for environment and natural resources.

But the filmmakers may be right: DIRT! may touch more people with Maathai’s simple story of a hummingbird that, drop by drop, tried to put out a forest fire as the other animals stood by and did nothing. “I may feel insignificant,” Maathai says, “but I certainly don’t want to be like the animals, watching as the planet goes down the drain. I will be a hummingbird. I will do the best I can.”

Melinda Burns
Former Miller-McCune staff writer Melinda Burns was previously a senior writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press, covering immigration, urban planning, science, and the environment.

More From Melinda Burns

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Moly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.


Follow us


How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.