Reviews of "Symphony of the Soil" and "Cafeteria Man" plus Q and A with "Symphony" filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia
The best love story at this year’s Wild & Scenic Film Festival is “Symphony of the Soil.” You might call it an “academic love story,” although the title says it better. The love communicated in this film is a symphony.
This composition integrates the elements of life into a story of life: its potential, its abundance, its vulnerability. It draws you into its complexity while synthesizing something rather simple. Its music invites you to love the soil. Love the soil, and life thrives.
What makes the film an academic love story is its detailed explanation of where soil comes from, how it is what it is, and does what it does. It explains what hurts it and what heals and nurtures it. It introduces you to soil’s variety.
It schools you in “economically rational agro-ecology.” What does that two dollar phrase mean? Do the right thing, and the soil will feed agricultural man generation after generation. It will sustain humanity.
“Symphony of the Soil” isn’t one of those finger wagging documentaries, although it necessarily points out the shortsightedness and threats that imperil us. Mostly, it emphasizes the wondrous biology of it all. It’s into bacteria and fungi and worms but not in a yuchy way.
This story is big on compost, sweet compost. This is a world where sugar is good. Soil feeds “cookies” to bacteria and fungi and they protect the soil in return. Animals, whether it’s worms or cattle, are part of the cycle of life. Hail to the “poop loop.”
“Symphony of the Soil” is a relationship film, worth seeing more than once, but if you want a one line summary: The soil is alive; don’t kill it.
“Symphony of the Soil” centers on nature. “Cafeteria Man” centers on nature’s most eccentric aspect – people. In particular, it centers on one man and the kids he’s trying to serve.
“Cafeteria Man” follows the years that Tony Geraci spent as the food service director of the Baltimore public school system. His mission: put good food, fresh food, on students’ plates at school. Too many big city kids didn’t even know what fresh food was (although too many kids knew how bad the school food was).
Wrapped around the mission, transform the bureaucracy that conveys food into the students’ world. This includes a healthy involvement with local food producers. While Geraci’s at it, connect the kids with farms and growing and kitchens, with talking about food, and caring about food.
It’s a win-win-win-win situation, except for small obstacles like instituting change of any kind, much less a complete overhaul. One key to progress was Geraci’s level of commitment, integrated with his driving and resilient personality. Another key to progress is dollar signs -- saving school districts money. Who gets and doesn’t get money underpins the already daunting tasks of conceptual change.
What does Geraci say when a kid asks what the toughest part of his job is: “The adults.” While fighting his battles and winning hearts and minds, he came to the attention of many, including first lady Obama as well as several other urban school districts.
There are plenty of important stories that make you wonder if we can change what’s wrong. “Cafeteria Man” showcases Tony Geraci – chef, businessman, champion – in a challenging, heartening success story.
Extracted from Chuck Jaffee’s conversation with the director of “Symphony of the Soil,” Deborah Koons Garcia.
Chuck Jaffee: How did you get to the tone and title of this film being a “symphony”?
Deborah Koons Garcia: The soil has complex aspects working together. It has rhythms and textures aside from content. To bring the challenge of soil alive, I wanted to bring more art into the film.
CJ: What about the soil fascinates you most?
DKG: There’s so much more than a piece of it in your hand: How complex it is; that it’s alive; that it turns death into life. This thin skin is the medium of transformation on this planet.
CJ: Is it fair to suggest that a respectful appreciation and devotion to healthy soil is about as profound as it gets when we think about sustaining humanity?
DBK: Scientists say we may be out of topsoil in 30 years. All we concentrate on is what can we get out of it. We’re taking, taking, taking -- not giving back. It’s a metaphor for how we treat each other. We take. We degrade things until we lose the sense of our stake in the community. We lose the sense of our stake in the soil.
CJ: You seem to have treaded lightly on the finger wagging and dire concerns in this film. How important was it to write a “Symphony of the Soil” not weighed down by that?
DKG: To change how people do things, you have to do more than just freak them out. I wanted to give an understanding of how things work. I wanted to emotionally engage people so they will want to take the next step. I wanted them to see how soil is alive, so they won’t want to poison it.
CJ: How do we get tens of millions of modern-living people to want to be farmers, healthy soil farmers … and to stick with it?
DKG: Make them fall in love with the land. There are lots more small farmers than there were 20 years ago, organic farmers. Young people are looking at their lives … they’re intrigued by food and farming. Some of them will make it. Some won’t.