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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.

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