A quick story: I was waiting in the crowd for a screening of “Dirt! The Movie.” The movie was already a minute or two late when a gregarious man ran up front and said something along the lines of “Hey, do you guys mind if we hold up the screening a bit for those people who weren’t lucky enough to be on time?” Several people yelled “No problem.” But I had another screening immediately afterwards and I only had a 10 minute window to get there, so I said, “Ummm… Yeah, I’d have a problem.” There were a couple boos, but the gregarious guy said, “Hey man, no worries! I was just asking.” He threw me a ski cap for the movie and came over and quickly said, “Hey man, I’m Jeff. Didn’t mean to put you on the spot like that,” shook my hand and gave me his card.
It was only later that I looked at the card and saw that Jeff was Jeff “The Dude” Dowd. In light of other events from the week, I just want to mention that Jeff was very nice to me, that I made it to my next screening, which stunk. So it goes.
I saw “Dirt! The Movie” as part of a double-bill with “Crude.” Both are in the documentary competition, but really I just liked the idea of seeing an oil movie and a soil movie consecutively. Even moreso than seeing yet another movie starring Lou Taylor Pucci, pairings like that are why folks should come to Sundance.
How were the actual movies? After the bump…
Directed by Joe Berlinger, “Crude” is such a classic David vs. Goliath story that you’d swear it was written by a well-meaning liberal screenwriter. It’s “A Civil Action: Ecuadorian Edition,” with an underdog native lawyer and his brash American counterpart fighting an underdog battle against Chevron, alleging that the oil giant polluted a wide swatch of the Ecuadorian Amazon, destroying the environment and leading to countless deaths. The plaintiffs may have the facts on their side, but the defendants are backed by the wealth of petro-colonialism, but in the Wild West of Ecuador’s judicial system anything can happen.
It’s a splendid story complete with murder, corruption and political intervention from the highest level. If some studio hasn’t already snagged the narrative rights to either “Crude” or the Vanity Fair article on the same subject, I’d do that immediately. Cast Benicio Del Toro as attorney Pablo Fajardo, who worked in the oil field and would eventually lead 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians in a class action suit against one of the world’s wealthiest corporations. Cast George Clooney as master manipulator Steve Donziger. Hire a director gifted in political thrillers — Fernando Meirelles would be an obvious choice. I smell Oscar bait.
Berlinger’s approach is mostly to let the story move forward as the case moves forward. He obviously admires Fajardo without reservation, but he has an eyebrow at least partially raised at Donziger’s showmanship. Berlinger never pushes too hard to force the plaintiffs to defend their case and Chevron Chief Environmental Scientist Sara McMillan goes into far more scientific detail (sometimes specious) than anybody on the side of the plaintiffs. Berlinger’s approach is quite even-handed and it’s impossible not to admire the craft exhibited Chevron’s attorneys, especially Adolfo Callejas, who may be working on the side of evil, but he’s doing it spectacularly well. Of course, the plaintiffs dominate the human interest side of the story and Berlinger is all for letting the camera linger on a man crying about the death of his children or on a young girl stricken with cancer. Fair and balanced though it may be, “Crude” won’t leave many viewers feeling sorry for Chevron.
The director has Fajardo and Donziger as his heroes, but he seems to tire of them. Two-thirds of the way through, Sting’s wife Trudie Styler takes a trip down to Ecuador and she hijacks the movie. Berlinger is so impressed by her star status that he lingers on her every shocked expression. Sting makes an appearance later on as well. I don’t want to malign The Stings, because they gave visibility to the case, but the story probably shouldn’t have been about them.
If “Crude” starts off well and falters in the end, “Dirt! The Movie” goes the opposite direction.
No movie I’ve attended at this year’s Festival has had more early walk-outs and I can’t say I necessarily blame them. “Dirt!” begins with one talking head after another raving about “The Earth’s Skin.” The early process of raving about soil and its impact on all of our lives is redundant — Yes, dirt’s alive, get it — and also silly, like the wine expert who explains that really oenology is about the dirt and proceeds to walk around noshing on it.
What directors Bill Beneson and Gene Rosow are doing, though, is the documentary equivalent of the rudimentary five-paragraph argumentative essay most people were taught in high school. They begin with generalities and frivolity, but their focus rapidly tightens. Soon we’re learning about how farming and agriculture effect soil. The answer? Badly. That expands to what the destruction of dirt does to humans. The answer? Drought, famine and war. It’s reductive, but it’s also persuasive. And finally, having painted a persuasive apocalyptic picture, the film closes with a long section on reclaiming the Earth, on things people can do in their own communities to bring dirt back.
And darned if I wasn’t moved by the prisoners at Riker’s Island talking about how gardening had changed their lives. And darned if I wasn’t impressed at the woman in New York City trying to bring patches of green to rooftops and sidewalks. The people making houses out of dung? That touched me a bit less.
“Dirt!” isn’t going to win converts with its artistry, though a few animated sequences feature a cute and expressive dirt blob, but it has a clear thesis which it pursues with clarity. At the very least, and this shouldn’t be considered an insult, “Dirt! The Movie” should provide teachable moments for high school and college classrooms for years to come. There’s nothing wrong with that.