Film Review: Symphony of the Soil

A dry lecture on soil science becomes slightly more palatable on shifting to lecturing about chemical-free farming. For truly dedicated organic agronomists only.

If there is one insight that Deborah Koons Garcia’s ponderous yet eager documentary Symphony of the Soil wants viewers to come away with, it seems to be this: Soil is not just dirt. This is a fair distinction to make, and one that most humans trotting about their daily business are likely unaware of. Dirt is sometimes just that: a crumbly accumulation of clods and dust that blows away in a slight breeze. Soil is an interconnected organism, like a thick, living rug of roots, mulch and organisms. The richness of soil’s life-giving properties is amply demonstrated time and again by the earnest Ph.D.s whom Koons Garcia has gathered here. For the first half-hour or so of her lamentably dry if beautifully shot film, they yammer excitedly at the camera and thrust their hands into the loamy turf, holding it up for the appreciation of the rare viewer who will be thrilled by this kind of thing.

Just like the biological phenomena it describes, Koons Garcia’s film has a lot going on under its surface. There’s a glowing appreciation for the rarity and value of truly fertile soil, what one scientist calls “this living crust,” which is spread so thinly and rarely across the planet’s mostly rocky terrain. Like many of the better nature-oriented nonfiction films, it tries to make viewers look again at what they take for granted, to make them understand that the incredible fecundity that has so far supported the human race on Earth is by no means a given.

The earlier parts of Symphony of the Soil are particularly rough going. With little variance from one voice to the next, the director presents her excellently qualified scientists holding forth on, in essence, the awesomeness and complexities of soil. A few of these repetitive declamations go a very long way, no matter how much Koons Garcia tricks them out with watercolor animations or “Nova”-esque time-lapse photography.

Later on, Koons Garcia pivots to a more editorial standpoint. The earlier material about soil was just the groundwork, as it were, for an editorial on the superiority of organic farming over the current preferred method of pesticides and fertilizers which dump too much nitrogen into the ground. Not only is this kind of massive, industrial, chemical-based farming a “deadly cocktail” that’s overly expensive and ruins the soil, the film argues, it doesn’t even produce more food in the long run. A few clips of the Dust Bowl from the past and modern-day Africa make the point.

Rapturous visuals aside, the film is too lacking in artistry to even approach a symphonic view of its subject. Soil is indeed the “interface between biology and geology,” as Dr. Michael Hansen from the Consumers Union puts it. This is an excellent insight. What Koons Garcia hasn’t managed to do is take that insight and turn it into something more than a photographed lecture.