Growing up in Arkansas, I’ve driven all over that state more times than I can count on my hands. From the flat, waterlogged delta around Helena to the rugged terrain of Devil’s Den. And the one thing that always catches my eye in this natural state is the different shades of green that can be found everywhere: in the grass, in the trees and in the brush. There are patches of green that have the faintest tint of blue, patches of green that are scorched by the sun, and fields of emerald farmland dotted with cows, rice, corn, and a variety of other cultures and creatures.
When I heard that PBS Arkansas was planning to show its latest educational documentary “Dirt” at the Ron Robinson Theater, I jumped at the chance to attend the screening last week. Upon entering the lobby, I noticed that there was a rather peculiar crowd. There were big, burly, muscular men – obviously farmers and ranchers.
In the corner of the room, people were handing out literature, in particular a book called “Conservation in Arkansas Agriculture” written by Lacey Thacker and Sara Mitchell, to accompany the film. Flipping through the book, it appeared that there were a lot of textbook style explanations of conservation, soil and farming practices, which I know nothing about. That’s when I thought maybe I was in over my head and out of my element, because all I knew about the dirt going into this movie was that it was brown and that I walked on it.
Educational documentaries tend to have a reputation for being rather dry and clinical. But director Jennifer Gibson brings a unique style and voice to the subject matter that brings our floor to life. Stylistically, it walks a thin line between a “Cosmos”-inspired approach where there’s an attitude of science and wonder interspersed with a quasi-Errol Morris quirkiness focusing on seven specific farmers – turning the camera on them and portraying them as biologists, entrepreneurs, philosophers and humanists.
The film begins with a brief history lesson mentioning The Dust Bowl and the increased demands on our agricultural systems, highlighting the pressure we have placed on our agricultural soil over the past century. Next, we’re introduced to some of the state’s farmers, ranging from goat herders and cattle ranchers to seasonal planters, each showing how their farms are using new technologies and practices to promote conservation and help keep the land healthy. . We meet people like the Peebles who practice agro-tourism with their annual corn maze. Phillip Haynie III who explains conservation from an economic and philosophical point of view, and Adam Chappell – one of the burly, bearded farmers – who really steals the show, as he talks comically and scientifically about worm droppings.
But here’s where the documentary starts to feel like it’s talking a bit over your head, at least to a non-farmer. It begins to go over conservation definitions and even gives an ecological breakdown of dirt, going through the periodic table, letting us know what elements are in the ground as well as what creatures large and small live beneath our feet and their uses — from worms that fertilize to nematodes that act as a microscopic pest control. But Gibson executes a wonderful explanation, making these scientific facts digestible. They are accompanied by informative and captivating animated graphics that match the quirky and fun nature of the film. So if at any point in the documentary you feel overwhelmed by the scientific jargon, these graphics will quickly catch up with you.
Another strong aspect of the documentary is the cinematography, as it is quite beautiful, with extensive use of drone footage hovering and spanning the fields from above. It’s these shots that show the greenery of Arkansas that I really admire. There are also some fascinating shots where it looks like we’re inside the earth, an earthworm’s perspective, as soil and other mud-related creatures move around the camera. And it’s those little creative touches that make “Dirt” a refreshing take on the public-access documentary genre.
“Dirt” is funded by state grants and was commissioned by the Arkansas Offices of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The film’s mission is not only to showcase new and effective ways to practice conservation, but also to be an outreach medium for the general public to raise awareness and educate people about one of the major industries of our state. I must say that they succeeded in their objective. After watching “Dirt”, I know a lot more about the soiled mounds under my feet.
I hope to see more high quality Arkansas PBS productions in the future. “Dirt” can be seen on Arkansas PBS at 7 p.m. Thursday.