Deborah Garcia: Giving Soil a Starring Role
01 Sep, 2012
by Anna Soref
Is fertile soil our next endangered species? Yes, soil—that stuff we tread on, and treat like “dirt.” But how could it be compared to a species? Soil isn’t alive—or is it?
Experts are beginning to shine a spotlight on what organic farmers have always known: soil is a complex living, breathing organism, which provides nourishment for trees and other plants and a home to millions of critters. These farmers also know that we must treat our soil with the respect that all living things deserve or it will die.
Filmmaker Deborah Garcia’s new documentary, Symphony of the Soil, tells us the story of the miracle of soil and why our most fundamental of resources is in peril. The message—we are badly abusing our soil—is delivered with breathtakingly beautiful footage filmed on four continents, along with a message of personal empowerment for each individual to change the tracks in the dirt.
Garcia’s first feature-length documentary, The Future of Food, was a gutsy deep dive into the complicated issue of GMOs. Before anyone else, Garcia brought to light in film the behemoth multinational corporations seeking monopolistic control of the world’s food system through GMOs. In 2004, The Future of Food set the standard and paved the way for game-changing films like Food, Inc., Forks Over Knives and Fast Food Nation.
The widow of the late Grateful Dead frontman, Jerry Garcia, Deborah Garcia admits her primary filmmaking passion is for storytelling in fictional films—romantic comedy, anyone? But setting passion aside, she feels a responsibility, and acts on it, to make documentaries and tackle these tough issues to raise public awareness—and she succeeds. Symphony of the Soil brings the viewer through Garcia’s own evolution in her awareness and connection with soil, which she calls “the matrix of life.”
Film and Food
In college, both film and food served as signposts for the path Garcia’s life would take. The first direction was food. “I remember holding this bloody piece of meat in my hands and realizing this thing had just been alive. That was the 1970s and macrobiotics and back-to-the-land were everywhere. I began cooking for myself, and through that I saw how many processed ingredients are in prepared foods,” she says. It didn’t take long for her to become a lifelong vegetarian and organic fanatic.
At that same time her hands would hold something else that would shape the rest of her life—a movie camera. “My friend owned a movie camera and I asked him to show me how to use it. So he demonstrated the basics and then we made a short film. I realized, this is it for me. Film is just such a powerful and emotional way to tell a story.”
The Future of Food
Garcia always knew she wanted to make a film about food. Not a foodie film, but one about organic food and agriculture with a dose of food justice. Following a difficult period after her husband’s death in 1995, Garcia decided it was time to embark on a project that was completely engaging. “I wanted to make a really serious film that was different from the other food films around 10 years ago that were obsessed with the perfect olive or peach. I really wanted to create something that would dig deeper into our food system,” she recalls.
When Garcia began talking about her film to colleagues and friends, a comment took her by surprise. “I was telling my friend about the film and she said, ‘So your documentary will have something about genetic engineering in it, right?’ My response was, ‘What?’ And she went on to inform me about GMOs.
“I was living in Marin County at the time, eating organically, and I thought I was very well educated about food and agricultural issues, but I knew little about GMOs. I knew the technology existed; I just didn’t know that they were doing it to seeds and that they were selling them and we were eating the stuff—it was just completely under the radar back then. It was crazy that I was as well informed as anybody about these other issues, yet I didn’t know anything about this. At that point I knew I had to really focus on genetic engineering. It was something that needed to be pushed to the front of the film to make sure that people understood this was a whole new way of corporate-controlled agriculture.”
When The Future of Food was released, it received international acclaim from Jerusalem to Oaxaca. “The public were just ready for something other than watching people eat 25-course meals and talk about it forever. Before Future of Food came out, there wasn’t a food movement. There was a foodie movement; but Future of Food actually went into social justice, health issues and so on.”
The film would ultimately impact GMO legislation. Local screenings in libraries and other public forums helped educate voters and contributed to the subsequent success of passing Measure H in Mendocino County, California, one of the first local initiatives in the country to ban the planting of GMO crops.
From Seeds to Soil
The Future of Food succeeded in doing just what Garcia had hoped: it brought GMOs to the public eye. But for this filmmaker there was more that needed to be told. “Because I had gotten so deeply into GMOs in the film, I didn’t cover agriculture as much as I had wanted to, so I thought a film about soil was needed. Soil is essentially the matrix of life; it goes from life to death and back to life again. There is all of this connection and communication going on under the soil—all these relationships between bacteria, nitrogen, phosphorus and the plant. It is incredible; it’s a miracle!”
As she began studying soil, the difficulty of the task she had set for herself became apparent. “I started researching soil and I realized how complex it was and how difficult it was going to be to make a film about soil. It was like ‘Oh no! I have already told people I am going to do this, so I have to do it.’ I understood how hard it would be, but fortunately I like a challenge,” she says. The making of Symphony of the Soil would take her to four different continents and involve numerous interviews with farmers, ranchers
An Evolving View of Soil
As Garcia began a more in-depth investigation of soil while writing the script, her view of its role in an agricultural context evolved. “When I started making the film about soil as an agricultural medium, my angle was, what can we get out of soil? What is in it for us? Then I began to study soil and to see how mysterious it is and all that goes on. In a forest, a leaf falls from a tree and onto the ground and is eaten by microbes and returns to the earth; and then those microorganisms release nutrients that feed plants that are growing, which allows those plants to grow, which then die and go back to the soil. This is a truly amazing cycle of life, and when you put agriculture into that equation you are actually tampering with the soil community. So the theme of what can we get out of soil? became the wrong question.”
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The view of soil as a commodity, something for us to take and use, is a reflection of American values, the filmmaker asserts. “The American culture has a lot to do with how we treat soil and the kind of soil we are ending up with. We think we can be less careful because we have such a wealth of soil here; that we can kind of wreck things and not care about things and then all just move on. In Europe and other places, they have to be more careful because they don’t have the same kind of land resources. In the United States we are far more careless about what we do to our environment. This carelessness carries over to being overly trusting about what we put in our bodies. There are a lot of chemicals that they do not allow in Europe that we allow here; and so I think that we really are a different culture and a different sort of breed and that this has affected, partly in a negative way, what has happened to our food system,” she says.
This view of soil creates a mindset that nature is simply a human resource. “When you think of soil as merely an agricultural medium, it turns it into a game where the objective is to farm everywhere,” Garcia explains. “Why do we want to farm everywhere? Why can’t we simply have a prairie be a prairie? We need to appreciate nature as nature and not just nature with the heavy human hand all over it. I want to celebrate the wildness of nature. In the film we do have quite a lot of agriculture included because that is our primary relationship with soil; but it also shows it is not the only relationship we need to have with the land—that people can appreciate there is a lot of beauty in wildness and we don’t have to change that.”
Garcia wants viewers to understand that, when it comes to taking care of the soil, there’s a vast difference between organic agriculture and industrial agriculture. “Good organic practices return to the soil; they give back with cover crops what the soil is composed of. Industrial agriculture doesn’t feed the soil and so it dies and becomes dirt. We are growing these monocrops, like corn, pouring chemicals into the soil and basically turning it into dirt. These destructive farming methods will have us
out of topsoil in 30 years, by some estimates,” she warns.
For a filmmaker used to shooting people, a documentary about soil was a challenging subject. “The film is really all about life, but soil is essentially in the dark. At the beginning shoot we were out in a field and I pointed out a patch of soil to the cameraman and said, ‘Okay, that is the shot. Action!’ Well, nothing was happening. There was no action and I’m thinking, what are we going to do? So, the idea of making a film—a medium which is all about movement—when you are just standing there and looking at something with no movement was challenging,” she says. But when you watch the stunning shots of glorious cliffs, fertile fields and impassioned individuals working the land, you can see that the film crew resolved these initial challenges.
Symphony of the Soil is actually more than just a documentary; Garcia refers to it as a project. Currently showing at film festivals and special events, this feature-length film is scheduled for release as a DVD in fall 2012. In addition, Sonatas of the Soil, which are short films, each delving deeply into one topic, can be watched individually online; and available also, for free viewing and sharing, are Grace Notes—streamed video clips and outtakes that the film crew couldn’t bear to leave on the cutting-room floor. Among the more than 20 of these clips, Dr. Paul Hepperly from Rodale Institute demonstrates the benefits of organic soil management; farmer Klaas Martens describes how beginning to farm organically brought back the smell of soil he remembered from his youth; and acclaimed writer and activist Vandana Shiva speaks about the connection of soil, mud, and the vision of sacred earth for India.
Garcia is hoping that the film will have the same impact for soil that The Future of Food had for GMOs. “I want people to become soil conscious, where they understand that soil is valuable and we have to treat it as if it is precious, and that if we don’t treat it right it won’t survive. I would love if people came out of the film and really looked out at the landscape and could deeply appreciate what is going on there—that soil is doing this amazing thing, which is basically recycling all life. We don’t feel resonance and connection to the earth, and I would like the film to help people to feel that connection and then appreciation.
“I also hope people learn from the film that soil is a community; that you cannot just pick up a piece of soil and say, ‘This is soil.’ Soil is a process, an organism, and a community. I want to get people to begin thinking about the whole idea of community and that it is valuable, and that you have to give back to community in order for it to continue. So far people who have seen the film are very moved by this way of thinking about soil.”
Having tackled and completed two groundbreaking documentary projects, Garcia is finally ready to have some fun. “Now I feel like… I have been good, I have done my social duty, and the films are out there and no longer simply inside me. They will be out there doing good, and so I am helping,” she says.
So, what’s next? Garcia indicates she is in the mood for a romantic comedy. “Comedy can be very healing, and it’s beneficial to take a break. For the past 10 or 12 years I feel that I have been doing a lot of worthwhile stuff. It’s as if I have been eating a very wholesome meal and now I kind of need some dessert—a healthy dessert, but a dessert.”
To learn more about Symphony of the Soil, including screening dates and locations, visit www.symphonyofthesoil.com.