For those of you who have seen Dirt: The Movie, Food, Inc., or any other film with commentary by Michael Pollan or Vanadana Shiva, here is another important film to add to the collection: The Symphony of the Soil—written, directed and produced by Deborah Koons Garcia. Koons Garcia is known for her seminal film on the food system, The Future of Food, and has once again created another extraordinary film.
The film artfully weaves the story of the amazing and complex substance that is soil. It delves into both the science of what makes soil what it is and the cultural context of it as well. It starts with the basic question: What is this stuff anyways? and pans out to how humans have used and abused soil, what we are doing to make it better, and how integral it is to our life. The film is narrated by Ignacio Chapell, famed microbial biologist and UC Berkeley professor.
Most notable is the artfulness of Symphony of the Soil. True to its title, the film really makes a symphony of soil, complete with music composed by Oscar and Emmy award-winning composer Todd Boekelheide. The film pairs narration and music with time lapse photography and watercolor animation.
I remember the feeling of anticipation at watching a strawberry ripen with time lapsed photography, seedlings literally popping out of the ground, and mysterious mushrooms arising out of the earth, only to disappear just as quickly as they came.
The watercolors were nothing short of amazing. Using literally thousands of watercolor scenes, all hand-painted by Los Angeles artist Will Kim, the beautiful images told the perils of fertilizer use and die off zones in oceans.
Another compelling aspect of the film is its ability to communicate the science behind soil, a topic that is not always easy to understand. The film made a work of art out of explaining topics such as geology, soil classifications, and nutrient cycling. Science junkies will be delighted by the accurate, creative, and comprehensive explanations. For those who draw a blank when someone talks about cationic exchange capacity, you will feel a sigh of relief, rejoicing, “Finally, someone said this stuff in English!”
The film also remains approachable and digestible while it takes on the more grim topics of soil. After discussing the collapse of soil life brought on by our conventional food system, it cuts to Will Rape in Burlington, Vermont. His work has helped transform the Burlington food system, all through investing in healthy soil. By following an explanation of the serious soil crisis we’re in with hopeful solutions, viewers will feel inspired as they face the realities before us.
And of course, what food advocate film would be complete without dozens of images and interviews with farmers? The film captures farmers from all over the world doing what they love: Digging in the soil, smelling it, touching it, planting things in it, pulling things out of it, and philosophizing about it.
My favorite moment was of Jaspal Singh Chatta of J & P Organics in Punjab, India. The film captures his crew and him building massive compost windrows, likely 20 feet long, using no mechanization. Men haul straw with poles, oxen cart big piles of cover crops, and water with buckets. Chatta sticks his hands in a steaming compost pile, pulls out a handful and investigates it. “Greasy, greasy,” he says approvingly in a thick Indian accent, referring to the fatty by-products of the decomposing microorganisms. “It’s (the) art of making compost.”
By the end of the film, you may find yourself itching to go plant some cover crops. Symphony of the Soil is an inspiring, beautiful, and poignant film that appeals to both long-time farmers and those who are completely new to the topic.