April 6, 2010

300 Words About: Dirt! The Movie

Dirt - a surprisingly fertile subject for a documentary

In writing about the best documentaries of the last decade recently, I made a comment that the 2000's ushered in a new era of documentary filmmaking. These days anyone, seemingly anywhere, can get funding to choose any subject and claim to be the "first" one to fully explore an issue, historical event, person, animal, or what have you. What this has led to, of course, is a great number of television documentary series ("Ice Road Truckers"?!) and feature-length documentaries (The Real Cancun) about rather inane subjects. I thought dirt might be one of those inane subjects. I was wrong.

I can't claim that Dirt! The Movie kept me riveted for all 86 minutes of its running time, but I can't claim it's ever boring, either. On the contrary, it's so subject-dense at times that it can be disorienting. Who knew dirt was such a complicated matter? Or rather, who knew dirt could be used as a jumping-off point to talk about complicated matters (e.g., agriculture, religion, politics, history, science, biology, world cultures)?

Indeed, the actual substance of dirt - the minerals that most of us try to avoid as much as possible in our hyper-sanitary lives - is given a brief but fair treatment early on. For the rest of the film, narrator Jamie Lee Curtis and directors Gene Rosow and Bill Benenson tease us with interviews and insights from activists, scientists, and even Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai. It's a meandering journey that doesn't appear to have a clear focus other than pushing an environmental agenda (it more accurately might have been titled Earth! The Movie), but when the directors can settle on a subject for more than a few minutes it's admittedly eye-opening.

Personally I found the concepts surrounding the human relationship to dirt to be the most fascinating. Subjects from around the globe talk about the earth as a mother, a lover, and a muse. Soil is likened to a "crib" within which generations have been raised. And all of that is just on the spiritual side of things (including the poignant "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" cliche). Other conversations focus on dirt's use in art, medicine, and building construction for thousands of years.

When the film makes grand statements like, "throughout civilization we've seen nations rise and fall based on how they've treated dirt", it can seem like a bit of a stretch, but the subject is consistently taken seriously and provides excellent educational information (if not a few too many animated segments). It certainly made me ponder the idea that dirt is "alive", and that large-scale agriculture practices can have massive ramifications entirely unrelated to the food that they provide. Moreover, I would have given little thought beforehand to light technology provided by microbial fuel cells, or the fact that gardening can have such a therapeutic effect on prison inmates at a place like Rikers Island.

Maybe the best thing about Dirt! The Movie is that it doesn't provide a laundry lists of "what you can do" tasks before the end credits. Films don't always have to lead you to "do" a given action. Sometimes just thinking about something in a new way, like dirt, will lead you to draw your own conclusions about how to apply it to your life. 

Dirt! The Movie is now available on DVD from Docurama Films

Additional April DVD Releases from Docurama and New Video

Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh
"In 1944, 22-year-old Hannah Senesh parachuted into Nazi-occupied Europe with a small group of Jewish volunteers from Palestine....Narrated by Academy Award® winner Joan Allen, the multi-award-winning BLESSED IS THE MATCH follows the remarkable journey of this young Hungarian poet and diarist, paratrooper and resistance fighter." (Street Date 4/13/10 | Pre-order)

Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight
"For many, Milton Glaser is the personification of American graphic design. Best known for co-founding New York Magazine and creating the enduring I ♥ NY campaign, the full breadth of Glaser’s remarkable artistic output is revealed in this documentary portrait." (Street Date 4/27/10 | Pre-order)

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe
"In WILLIAM KUNSTLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE, filmmakers Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler explore the life of their father, the late radical civil rights lawyer...This powerful film not only recounts the historic causes that Kunstler fought for; it also reveals a man that even his own daughters did not always understand, a man who risked public outrage and the safety of his family so that justice could serve all." (Street Date 4/27/10 | Pre-order)


  1. Well, it was rather a captivating trailer, but I know how documentaries can quickly get lost and move into matters that really have nothing to do with the central subject. Still I'm glad to hear this:

    "Maybe the best thing about Dirt! The Movie is that it doesn't provide a laundry lists of "what you can do" tasks before the end credits. Films don't always have to lead you to "do" a given action."

    I'm thinking about the documentary on water, and where that one headed, but let's face it, there are two substances that virtually can serve as the underpinning of everything we do tp facilitate our daily existance: one is water, and the other is "dirt" (the earth). Hence there is no limit to the options available here. As always it all comes down to the success or lack thereof connected to creativity.

    You peel away the cause nicely here Dan.

  2. "Hence there is no limit to the options available here." Yeah that's the real truth, Sam, so it's hard to fault them for taking it in so many directions. Had they made it a scientific analysis of dirt for 86 minutes that would have actually been worse. Maybe it could have just been organized into proper sections instead of going back and forth between subjects and interviewees. Let me know if you ever happen to see it.


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