Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow, Dirt! The Movie, 2009, still from a color film, 86 minutes.
EVER SINCE DAVIS GUGGENHEIM integrated Al Gore’s biography into An Inconvenient Truth (2006), punctuating the despair of the activist’s climate change warnings with an array of personal asides about family and fame, documentaries about the environment have strived to make their dire subject matter more readily digestible. That’s a pity in the case of Dirt! The Movie (2009), because the chipper, animated interludes that litter the film, all featuring a smiling nugget of dirt, almost derail a thesis that is otherwise probing and provocative —that the history of life on our planet can be directly linked not only to the quality of its air or water but to the health of its skin, the soil.
Directors Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow partition the story into a revealing celebration of dirt’s miracles—dubbed by many in the film as the “giver of life”— and then a (surprise!) condemnation of the ways in which this resource is being diluted and destroyed by an overpopulated world engaged in unsustainable practices. Much as Flow: For Love of Water (2008) looked at the fragility of the global water supply, Dirt! first sets out to isolate the delicate powers of this often overlooked substance. Opening with an array of farmers, scientists, and environmentalists—chief among them India’s prolific ecofeminist Vandana Shiva—discussing their relationship with dirt, we are offered glimpses of the more remarkable examples of its abilities, from rejuvenating razed forests to serving as a valuable hands-on rehabilitation tool for inmates in the justice system. Shiva argues that urban living has led people to lose sight of the soil-based life cycle, where the waste byproducts of crops are fed to animals, which in turn provide the manure necessary to prepare the fields for the next harvest.
It’s when Dirt! turns away from these giddy talking heads and toward the more troubling crises of dirt eradication that the movie really gains traction. Pedantic imagery of foreboding omens contrast sharply with the movie’s more alluring scenes demonstrating dirt’s ability to resuscitate deserts, toxic sites, deforested mud pits, and urban jungles. They are eye-opening revelations of dirt’s true potency—the sort of palpable case studies that should hardly need an animated mascot to help sell the issue to the average moviegoer.