Film Review: Symphony of the Soil


On February 25, 2013, I joined Bard students, faculty, staff, and community members packed into Jim Ottaway Jr. Film Center to view Deborah Koons Garcia’s documentary Symphony of the Soil. Here is my review.

I’ve essentially lost faith in food system and agriculture-related documentaries. More often than not, the dramatic music dims to a close, the credits roll, and I am left feeling immensely dissatisfied. Most often, the crucial message of these documentaries – the need to revolutionize our current food and agricultural system – is lost in sensationalized arguments and not-so-subtle propaganda. However, the Symphony of the Soil, a film by Deborah Koons Garcia highlighting the essential role soil plays in the makeup of our planet and our lives, has restored my faith in the use of film to promote food and agricultural awareness. Deborah Koons Garcia put faith in her viewers’ intelligence by allowing science to play a central role in her film, avoiding the tendency of many environmental films to build their argument by demonizing the ‘other side.’ 

Will Kim animation still, courtesy of Lily Films

The first thirty minutes of the film focus on providing the audience with a sufficient background in the fundamentals of soil science, actually bringing viewers to Norway to introduce us to the three main components that comprise a healthy soil: clay, peat, and sand. By doing so, Garcia not only highlights science, but also allows her audience to be privy to what the science actually means. This shows a concern for not only getting a message across, but actually a desire for the message to be understood. The film then brings us to Hawaii and Washington to explain how soil is made, what it is made of, and what it produces. One might expect this portion of the film to be a snoozefest. (In my own experience, I’ve found soil science to be exactly that!) However Garcia is able to recreate the fascination of actually being in the field. Instead of subjecting her audience to another floating head lecturing about soil science, she brought her audience around the world, allowing viewers to not just be told about soil science, but also to actually see soil science at work. And she did this without using cheeky cartoons to illustrate her point, as Ignacio Chapela, an advisory scientist to the film, brought to our attention before the film began.

After outfitting the audience with a general understanding of soil science, Garcia steers the argument in a direction I had not expected before stepping into the theatre; agriculture.

Deborah Koons Garcia and Ignacio Chapellinto the theater: agriculture.

Again, Garcia uses a variety of locations and professionals to present this argument. She brings us to the Palouse in Washington state where the highly productive loess soils exist, to places like India, England, Oregon, New York, and Pennsylvania where she introduces us to professionals from a variety ofbackgrounds: farmers, soil scientists, sustainable agriculture advocates, and environmental advocates. By not focusing only on one angle, she brings great depth to her argument, addressing the harmful effects of chemicals on the soil as well as the role soil has played in the rise and fall of ancient civilizations.

Although I’ve been introduced to soil’s great importance on a number of occasions, including a national environmental science competition and a sustainable farm tutorial with a graduate professor, I cannot say the message has fully stuck until I saw Symphony of the Soil. I am not only impressed with Garcia’s film, but am thankful to her for her work and dedication to not only getting the message out, but also making sure the message is understood.

Marnie Macgregor is a junior at Bard College studying Anthropology and hoping to continue research on rural communities, food and agriculture. Marnie also works at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy as an outreach assistant.