It is highly unlikely that many filmmakers can quote articles from EU directives or discuss what the rotating presidency means for a draft law. Gene Rosow is an exception. The American is the director and producer of “Dirt! The Movie”, a documentary that has taken him from the Sundance Film Festival in Utah to the European Commission’s headquarters.
Rosow did not set out to lobby lawmakers, but he says he always knew the project was about more than making a film. For a lot of people, dirt is inert matter, something to walk on or pave over. But for Rosow, dirt is the stuff of life. In his film people rake their hands through it with reverence, sift it, inhale it for its distinctive aromas. Dirt is also life and death: people make their living from dirt, build homes from it, and fight wars over it.
“Soil is the ultimate natural resource. It is the matrix of all terrestrial life and it is a resource that is vanishing before our eyes,” says Rosow, who studied ecology as a postgraduate. He was inspired by the book “The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth”, by William Bryant Logan (who appears in the film). The book, Rosow says, helped him think in a different way about the ground beneath his feet. “Dirt is a mystery…it is alive. We know less about the soil than anything else that governs our lives,” he says.
The mystery of the five centimetres of topsoil is what the film aims to unlock. A couple of fistfuls of dirt may have tens of billions of micro-organisms in it, the film reveals. But this is not just a natural-history lesson; it is a study of social and environmental degradation around the world. The film visits war-torn Sudan – “really a conflict over dirt”, says an interviewee. It goes to India, where 200,000 farmers have committed suicide in the past ten years. And then there is the concrete jungle of Los Angeles, a city that spends $1 billion each year importing water, while precious rain runs straight off the asphalt and down the drain. The film also reveals some intriguing research, such as a case study that found that tearing up the asphalt in a school yard resulted in less aggressive games.
Educate and entertain
“Dirt! The Movie” is to be shown on US television as part of an Earth Day special on 20 April, and will also be promoted in Europe. The film is part of a wave of environmental films in recent years, notably former US vice-president Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”.
But Rosow wants his film to do more than merely entertain people. “With ‘Home’ [a film by Yann-Arthus Bertrand that looks at how the ecological balance of the planet is being threatened] and ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, people leave the cinema with a sense of hopelessness…you walk away from the experience feeling overwhelmed.”
“Dirt! The Movie” aims to shape and support a larger social movement. “The film is the tail that wags the dog of a larger project, which is outreach education,” says Rosow.
DIRECTIVE IS STUCK IN THE MUD
The EU’s soil protection directive has been stuck for many months. Drafted by the European Commission in 2006, the law aims to put in place EU-wide measures to protect the soil, such as restrictions on dangerous substances, requirements for national inventories of contaminated sites and action to prevent future degradation.
But a blocking group of countries, including France, Germany and the UK, stopped the proposal in its tracks. Commission officials were so dissatisfied with a watered-down version of the text drawn up by France (in the second half of 2008) that they considered withdrawing their proposal altogether. But France failed to get member states to agree on this weaker text and the draft law has made no progress since.
Now environmentalists’ hopes are rising again. France has suggested it will drop its opposition, while Spain, which has just taken over the rotating presidency of the EU, is expected to give the matter higher priority.
The US Department of Agriculture is looking at how it can use the film. Schools and community groups in the US are already using it as part of gardening programmes. Blue State Digital, the communications company behind US President Barack Obama’s internet campaigns, has created a website encouraging people to “join the dirt movement”, by hosting film screenings or e-mailing politicians to find out about legislative plans.
Now Rosow is bringing his film to Europe in the hope that it can play a part in changing opinions and raising awareness about the draft soil directive, which has come to a standstill in the Council of Ministers (see panel).
In September Rosow showed his film in Osnabrück, Germany, as part of a Commission-sponsored soil-awareness event. The film has also been shown in the European Parliament.
This is an unusual route for a filmmaker – a long way from the usual round of film festivals, cinema and DVD.
“It is not about profit. It is not about career, it is not about the next money- move. It is about taking the project as far as we can go. And right now we are in the middle of it and seeing different possibilities,” says Rosow.
Almost six years since the project began, Rosow believes a lot more needs to be done. “We need a global soil directive where everyone shares responsibility towards the soil,” he says.