You could base a semester-long college course — more than one, actually — on Deborah Koons Garcia‘s Symphony of the Soil, a science doc stuffed with information that makes “the living skin of the Earth” sound much more interesting than one might think dirt could be. Artfully made and full of engaging, very smart people, the doc is eye-opening enough to have some niche theatrical appeal and should enjoy a long life on video and in classrooms.
Dirt, we learn, is made of three components, and the film takes us to the far-flung places where they’re found in their pure form. In Norway, we see glacial-runoff sludge that is purely mineral in composition, with no organic matter; elsewhere we dig in peat moss that is nothing but organic; on a pristine beach, we find coral that has been ground up by the tides into a fine sand.
An assortment of scientists explain how elements combine to form many different kinds of soil; at sites where erosion has exposed a cross-section of layered earth, they show how plants and atmosphere change the composition of each stratum. A trip to Hawaii affords us the chance to compare very recent dirt, just 50 years old, to other terrain dating back 300, 20,000, and 4 million years. Our guides are never shy about getting their hands dirty, and the fascination they have with the processes of decomposition and nutrient extraction is surprisingly contagious.
Though it’s accompanied by a sometimes grand orchestral score, the doc is less ostentatiously artsy than its title suggests. But it does maintain a more philosophical mood than the typical nature film, working to convey the essential role its subject plays in supporting all life on the planet. Eventually, it warms up to discussions of agriculture and the quest to undo the damage decades of industrial farming has done to croplands; its long and convincing argument for the expansion of organic farming will resonate with Slow Food advocates but never turns the film into a cookie-cutter eco-advocacy film.
Production Company: Lily Films
Director-Screenwriter-Producer: Deborah Koons Garcia
Director of photography: John Chater
Music: Todd Boekelheide
Editor: Vivien Hillgrove
No rating, 104 minutes