“Get Dirty!” Says Filmmaker Gene Rosow
Have you ever finished watching a film and wished you could have a conversation with the director? After reviewing Dirt! The Movie, Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) was privileged to speak by phone with Gene Rosow, who, along with Bill Benenson, directed and produced the film for Common Ground Media and Docurama Films. We asked Rosow, initially, to tell us he would most like viewers to know.
He said, “There’s a movement I’m hearing across the country — and this is consistent with your website — we have to do something.”
Dirt! The Movie is a remarkable documentary that we think is well worth seeing. The film is being released for sale today on the Dirt! website and in stores across the U.S. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
BPGL: This is a pretty unique topic. How did you decide to make a film about dirt?
ROSOW: As filmmakers, Bill Benenson and myself did not begin with the idea that we’re going to make a message film, necessarily. We are both experienced filmmakers in terms of feature film production. I‘ve worked as a producer of feature films ranging from independents to studio films and documentary filming.
A mutual friend gave us this book called, Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth. Speaking for myself, it hit every part of my past experience both as a documentary filmmaker and a feature film producer wanting to tell stories that were positive.
I used to teach history at UC Berkeley, and there’s an historical dimension to this book. There’s a spiritual dimension to the book — and science. I did a year of post graduate work in ecology, biochemistry, cellular physiology and parisitology, and it helped ring this science bell as well. So, for me personally, it hit every part of my being, in addition to which I thought: Here’s a chance to make a film about a topic that nobody really thinks about, and yet it’s so central.
And, it’s a way of contributing to how we begin to build and create a sustainable world in the situation where we’re sort of blowing it.
So the book offered a challenge, and a real puzzle. It’s an amazing topic. The book inspired us to turn the thing around from many different ways. Science and history and spirituality, with bottom-line, green-conscious thinking.
We set out to make a film of the book, which you have seen. It became something much different and broader than the book itself, in the sense that it became global. And we always wanted to make a film that reached beyond the traditional community of people who were already environmentalists. We set out to make a film for a much broader audience.
And so, we had to pull every experience and thought about telling the story of the relationship between dirt and our species that we could possibly think of.
This is eight years in the making, starting from the very, very beginning. In a sense it was to not just make a film about soil, which is focused on food only, though that is clearly important. But it’s about every aspect of our being. It’s something that we just never think about. Water is more obvious — and air, but soil is central to everything.
We made the film through a not-for-profit, and we struggled to make it work, and there it is.
BPGL: It’s quite a remarkable film. I found myself wanting to remember almost every single line in this movie. This is a power-packed film that shares an important message.
ROSOW: You guys are marketers; you understand the importance of communicating. More and more, what I’ve been seeing is that effective communications in this regard, how we use the media, isn’t just about selling DVDs. It’s not just about making statements.
It’s a much more important, action-oriented approach. We think of ourselves as descendants of the people in the caves painting on the walls to tell everybody where the food and resources are that we need to survive.
What’s interesting is that four years ago, I was invited down to UC San Diego to talk about media and science. The feeling was that scientists are mute — not only about climate change, but also about the state of our environment. They were unable to get their message to a broader public.
That was part of the topic of that session. We were really taking a look at Michael Crichton’s book, State of Fear, which sort of denied that there was such a thing as climate change. He was saying that people are making it up to cash in on the climate change phenomena.
There were several Nobel Prize winners, and the guy who invited me, the dean of the school of the physical science department, had testified before Congress 20 times. He’s one of those men who drills the holes in Antarctica. He was unable to get his message out, so he was counting on filmmakers, journalists, and people in marketing to try and reach out. There’s more and more of that.
Last year I was the Hans Jenny Memorial Lecturer in Soil Science. Jenny was considered the dean of American soil science studies. He died in 1992 — a brilliant man who developed ecosystems thinking in regard to soil science, rather than soil science alone. He developed a mathematical formula for how soils are formed that is very complicated.
His passion was also for making sure that people in the general public understood that this is an important thing soil scientists are doing. There is a growing recognition that we in the media have a unique challenge and an opportunity to translate and share this information. So, for us, the film is the tail of a much bigger dog of a public engagement and awareness project than just making a film.
BPGL: What do you mean when you say scientists are mute?
ROSOW: It’s just that they communicate in such a specialized way, except for very few who become media stars, whether it’s Carl Sagan, previously, or Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson of Nova’s ScienceNow.
The scientists’ sense was there was a sense of urgency. They usually find they’re very patient in a step-by-step way. But as they were seeing that we’re facing real dangers in the way we’re treating the environment and ourselves, there was an urgency on their part that they have to start sharing their knowledge.
In the previous administration, there were eight years of completely ignoring science and an anti-scientific bias. But that’s true a bit in American history. These scientists testified under the Clinton administration, too.
Their sense is that they do the work, and they’re providing information, but it’s not being shared. Not that our film is a science film, but it is just bringing that information forward.
BPGL: I was wondering if the scientists meant that they were mute because of the relationship with their university or whoever employs them.
ROSOW: That’s actually somewhat becoming part of it in questions about agriculture. Large companies have funded all the research and even department positions at universities. That is true. There’s a real anti-organic force going through university agriculture departments.
BPGL: Some Iowans call Iowa State University “Monsanto U.”
ROSOW: Exactly. That’s true, and at UC Berkeley, for example, a major corporation funded GMO research with a grant of $500 million. At the same time, one professor who was studying the devastating impact of GMOs on corn didn’t get tenure because there was pressure applied.
There is a pressure, yet at the same time, I think people are waking up. I know in a lot of the foundation world, food policy issues are becoming more and more important.
BPGL: How did you determine who you were going to have speak in the film? You have some fascinating folks in there. Over the eight years of making the film, did you go through dozens of people beyond those we now see?
ROSOW: Absolutely. When we began to look at what we wanted the film to say, we knew that we wanted to have a global perspective. We knew we wanted to look at the subject of soil in different ways. So we’re looking at energy. We’re looking at how working with dirt can play a role in the lives of inmates. We’re looking at building with soil as a natural building source. We’re looking at generating energy from microorganisms.
So we started to look for people who were doing these kinds of things. For example, my wife Linda Post is a garden designer and screenwriter who played a key role in writing the narration. She gave me a copy or a book that’s about Riker’s Island. I called up James Jiler, who is in charge of the program there, and had written a book called Doing Time in the Garden. He said, “Come on. Let’s see if we can arrange it.”
The topic we previously looked at was in Sicily, where Mafia lands — vast estates — were taken over by the government and then turned over to a group of young agro-ecologists, who began to establish programs with mentally disabled people working in the fields. They had remarkable results just by working with soil.
It was too expensive to go to Italy to film that, and here was Riker’s Island, which was just as powerful in its own way. So that is sort of the natural progression. And, yes, there are dozens of people who we wanted to include in China and in Japan. As they say, there are many faces on the cutting room floor.
We also wanted a balance between men and women, different races, different ages, and kids.
BPGL: What did you find most surprising? Did you learn some things in the filming that shocked you?
ROSOW: I would say, everything! [He laughs.] Once you begin thinking of dirt and soil as alive, and that how we keep it alive is central to our existence, you realize there aren’t many species on the planet that could survive if we do not care for soils.
One thing that’s great about being a documentary filmmaker, as I’m sure you know from doing your website and talking with people, there are all these people who always blow your mind at some level. That’s the fun of it.
So, the people bring different perspectives, whether it’s David Orr’s “all education is about soil” or the inmates in Riker’s who are really, really there, when they say the guards come up to start asking them how do they start growing their food at home. Relationships are changed.
Whether it’s Vandana Shiva, who is incredibly powerful in terms of soil and biodiversity. Or Wangari Maathai, who relates all security issues to soil. She did win the Nobel Prize. To hear her discuss Darfur in terms of soil, that was surprising as well.
Or that we don’t need to be destroying soil all over the world to get at energy sources; we can use biomimicry and start to see what are the subtler ways of just generating energy from microorganisms and so on. Those are all sort of “Whoa!”
BPGL: It’s pretty surprising information.
ROSOW: I know! So, my answer is everything!
BPGL: Which of the stories affected you most deeply? Was there one that really tugged at your heart?
ROSOW: I would say a couple. One is Riker’s. Definitely. It just goes right through me. It’s powerful and emotional. When you’re talking to inmates and then you follow the story when the inmates get out and are working out in the community, there’s a powerful life-changing event going on. That’s a story.
And the people, of course, who we got to spend time with, like Wangari Maathai. That’s powerful.
That, and the edible schoolyard. Alice Waters, whom I’ve known before she became a chef, let alone [creator of] the Edible Schoolyard— when she was a Montessori teacher. The idea is that the education of the next generation can be based on our relationship to soil.
The Edible Schoolyard in the film (which is way cut down from the original story), is not just about growing your food and eating lunch. It’s really based on an approach that says you can learn math, you can learn science, you can learn history, you can learn ethics by studying soil and food — which is really interesting. There’s a whole different way of thinking about education, which we’ll need to shift our consciousness.
BPGL: What message do you most want to impart to viewers?
ROSOW: Let’s start with, “Get dirty!” The idea that you become aware that the ground beneath your feet and soil, dirt, is a living system, that all life on terrestrial Earth depends on. It’s not only about food, it’s about climate change. Everything that we do with soil, preserving it and protecting it, ultimately leads to our survival. And if we don’t take care of it, we won’t be around. We [only] have this small window of time to do something.
There are solutions. They’re out there. We want to show them and share them, and show that it is absolutely possible to turn things around if we get dirty and regard soil as a living being that we need to take care of.
BPGL: Besides “get dirty,” what would you say to the ordinary person — someone who doesn’t have a lot of money to start a big project such as reforesting an area — as far as their relationship with dirt and what they could consider doing?
ROSOW: Get dirty is first becoming aware. Then, what can you do? You start to change your relationship to soil with food. That means, eat local organic, and spend your money on local, organic produce, going, if you can, to the farmers and farmers’ markets. It’s tangible. It helps you; it helps the soil. And it’s already making a huge difference. That’s incredibly important.
The second part is you don’t need to start an entire forest to plant something. All of us, whether we’re in cities — which most of us are — or in suburbs, can have some access to some kind of soil, even it it’s just growing herbs in a pot. It’s possible to plant something, wherever you are — to establish that relationship with dirt, to put something in there, even if it’s just herbs. Once you start to do that, you get more and more interested and want to do more. So, planting trees, planting anything absolutely takes care of that.
Also, on a larger scale, of course, effective energy choices help us. That’s a whole combined range of things. How does that help dirt? Because we’re blowing up dirt all over for energy. So once we begin to think about how we can use energy differently, what our sources are — solar and wind, or microorganisms — whatever we can do to tap into different energy sources helps dirt as well.
And composting, if you can. You can compost even if you live in a small apartment. The other day I was working in my community garden plot and a couple people came up who live in nearby apartments and handed me small bags of compost. Composting is a wonderful experience.
BPGL: Is there anything else we should know?
ROSOW: Yes. Please go to www.dirtthemovie.org, where we have educational materials under “All About Dirt,” related to every grade level. We have ways that local community organizations can get involved along with very specific information on how to hold a screening, use the film to raise money for your organization, and talk about issues you’re interested in. That’s all on the website. So there are a lot of choices for how to use the film to leverage awareness in whatever your issue is.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)