Interview by Greg Carlson
On Tuesday, June 18 at 7pm at the Fargo Theatre, documentary filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia will present her latest film, “Symphony of the Soil.” Koons Garcia is an accomplished artist, whose 2004 documentary “The Future of Food” investigated the perils of genetically modified foods. “Symphony of the Soil” continues the filmmaker’s study of our relationship with food and the environment.
High Plains Reader film editor Greg Carlson asked Koons Garcia about her work.
HPR: Symphony of the Soil establishes soil as the film’s protagonist and central character. At the beginning of the movie, soil is beautifully described by the brilliant Ignacio Chapela as a “living crust that is smeared over the surface of our planet.” What is your favorite thing about soil?
Deborah Koons Garcia: What fascinates me about soil is its transformational nature, the idea that it not only provides a foundation for life – that plants and trees and animals grow out of it – but that it transforms death into life. It is the medium in which life is broken down and made available for new life to form. One aspect of this is called nutrient cycling, but it’s really about life cycling through the soil.
HPR: When you made The Future of Food (2004), the focus was on the genetic engineering of food and the risks of corporate influence on agricultural practices. Even in recent weeks, more news stories about nations banning the importation, use, or growth of genetically engineered crops have emerged. Labeling and definitions can be controversial. Where do you see the United States in the next steps of the movement to more carefully examine GE/GMO practices and potentially adopt more detailed and explicit labels?
DKG: I personally am relieved that the general population is starting to rise up and question the GMO regime. I know a lot about this because I been studying, making films and speaking about it for over 12 years. For too long, so much of what has gone on in this country has allowed GMOs a free pass; they’ve been under the radar.
It amazes me that the corporations that have spent billions of dollars on propaganda to convince people that we need these allegedly harmless GMOs to feed the world are terrified by mandatory labeling. If they are so proud of their product, they should be proud to label it because then the people convinced by their propaganda can go out and buy it.
You have to be suspicious of the corporate persons, which are these corporations, who are so afraid of being held accountable for their products. The only way that people are going to develop any confidence that this stuff is what their promoters say it is is if we have long term scientific studies that are transparent and neutral, that are not funded and controlled by the corporations controlling the GMOs, and if we have labeling of the food itself.
This way, if GMOs cause harm, we’ll be able to identify where that harm came from. They don’t want stuff labeled, they don’t want to be tested, they don’t want us to have a choice. Just that alone should alarm the public. What are they hiding? Why are they afraid? What do they know that they don’t want us to know? And why should their attitude be so infantilizing – shut up and eat! That is totally insulting.
This whole thing with GMO wheat has alarms going off everywhere – good! Monsanto has not managed to shove this stuff down the world’s throats and Americans are finally waking up and realizing we don’t want it shoved down our throats either. I certainly don’t think Monsanto and friends should be able to contaminate their way into controlling every field in America.
We have to make them pay for damaging farmers’ property by contaminating it with GMOS without the farmers wanting it there, rather than having to make the farmer pay them for basically destroying his freedom to grow what he wants. They should be paying such huge damages for contamination that they have to go out of business. These entities are not who we want controlling our seed supply.
HPR: As a filmmaker and storyteller, can you name a film you saw or a filmmaker whose work you saw that really communicated something special to you or inspired you?
DKG: I recently saw a film called “Hot Coffee,” which is about some changes in our judicial system that have happened over the past 20 years in terms of product liability and limits on what courts can award to victims of wrongdoing. It’s a topic that I’m really interested in. The filmmaker is a lawyer and she shows how our judicial system has been changed to favor corporate interests.
It’s been out for a few years. It’s really fascinating and also terrifying. What it points out is that by introducing mandatory arbitration and limits on what courts can award to someone who has been harmed, special interests such as insurance companies and corporations that make products that end up hurting people really face very little penalty.
It shows the degradation of the judicial system-how corporate interests now trump individual rights. There was a campaign to make these changes happen and they did happen, and our rights as citizens have been eroded. In many ways, we have lost the protection of the law. It didn’t inspire me exactly, rather it infuriated me, but it really brought to light in a clear way some very important issues that too few people are aware of. This affects all of us.
HPR: “Symphony of the Soil” visits many places to share the diverse stories of sustainable practices. How many miles did you log during the production phase of the documentary? Of the places you had never been before, where would you like to return?
DKG: We went to Norway, the UK, India, Egypt and around the United States over a few years, so it was many thousands of miles, many days of jet lag, all of it completely worth it. We were in Egypt before this revolution happened and sometime in the future it would be interesting to go back and see how the lives of the people that we met there have changed.
I was also really fascinated by natural beauty of Norway, the fjords and magnificent land and seascapes there. We were shooting midsummer, so it was light 24 hours a day where we were, up above the Arctic Circle. It was a very strange feeling. As a filmmaker of course I was thrilled because we could shoot 24 hours a day.
Some of the scenes there we filmed at 2 AM and the light was so beautiful. I found it hard to sleep at all because I could feel that the sun was out, even in a darkened room. There’s a part of me that would like to go back there midwinter and experience what it’s like when it’s dark 24 hours a day and everything is snowy and cold outside and cozy and warm inside.
HPR: Scientists often have a dry, clinical, cerebral reputation that suggests difficulty in cinematic translation, but your subjects defy the stereotypes. How do you approach the interview process in order to collect material that is accessible to the non-scientists in the audience?
DKG: I do a lot of homework for my interviews. I choose subjects who are at the top of their field and I figure I owe it to them to know what they do and to figure out the right questions to ask them. One scientist in the film, Peter Vitousek from Stanford, with whom we went to Hawaii, has a book called “Nutrient Cycling and Limitation in Hawaii.” So I read the book of course and then when I told him in a pre-interview that I’d read his book he said “My condolences.”
It actually was a fascinating book and really helped me understand that soil has a lifespan and also that cycling process, life cycling through the soil. I do try to really understand the topic so I can bring out the best of what each person I’m interviewing, whether she’s a scientist or a farmer or an activist, can bring to the film.
I prepare a list of questions in advance. I also see the interview process as a formal one. I tried to not get too chatty or casual before the interview. After the interview, that’s fine, we can go have a drink or meal together but I want to create a kind of formal set up, the sense that this is a special interchange, a kind of a witnessing.
I find that once they understand that I respect them enough to actually find out quite a lot about what they do, that that actually helps bring their best to the interview process as well. I let them know in advance exactly what area I want to cover with them because a lot of these people have a vast amount of knowledge about all kind of things. I chose something they have special enthusiasm for and want to share with the world.
Plus I choose topics that I’m interested in and so they’re telling me about things I’m personally fascinated by so it makes it an animated conversation. One person I interviewed had had a film made about him and it was funny because before we did the interview, he was complaining about that film, that he didn’t like it, that he didn’t feel that filmmaker understood his work.
Then after our convivial interview, he said, “I really enjoyed this interview. You asked me such good questions.” And I said, “Well, I read your book.” And he complained one last time about the previous filmmaker and said, “He did not read my book.” But I can tell as a filmmaker when I watch films in which the director really hadn’t connected with the interviewee, when they just kind of came in on the fly in and didn’t really get the person. Then it becomes rote.
An interview is a kind of a ritual: film lasts forever so you really want to be focused, show respect for them and their work by understanding it, look them in the eye, and figure out how to really listen to them. Usually the people I interview have spoken a lot about their work, presenting papers or teaching. I talk to them about communicating to a mass audience and they are intelligent enough to understand how to present their special knowledge in a way that people can understand it.
If necessary I ask them to rephrase the answer so the average person can get it. It doesn’t mean dumbing it down, it means smartening up. The people in this film are thrilled that it is raising soil consciousness. It’s also nice to ask a question which they wouldn’t be expecting because then they can improvise and that gets them kind of excited too to have to think on their feet.
HPR: You find an artistic tone and voice in “Symphony of the Soil” that resists any temptation to escalate the fear and terror that sometimes accompanies the dialogue about the state of the ecology. Is it hard to be calm, rational, and positive when it feels like there is so much to be scared and angry about?
DKG: I agree there is a lot to be scared about these days. As a filmmaker though it would just be too easy to put people on a giant bummer and leave it at that. After all, to my mind the purpose of making a film is to help. I want people to make positive changes and if you leave people in a negative, depressed, freaked out state nothing will change, they’ll just go to bed and pull the covers over their head, so I’ve wasted my time as a filmmaker.
This film is a kind of a hybrid in that it’s got a lot of science in it but it’s also artfully done, artistically done. Yes, I went to art school! And art is about transformation. The best art is about deep transformation and, I believe, ultimately should be ennobling. I know it’s an old-fashioned idea but that’s what I believe. I think that beauty, scientific rigor and skillful filmmaking can be joined together to create something that actually changes how people see the world and therefore changes how they act upon that world.
I wanted this film to be highly informational. Soil science is fascinating, cutting-edge science these days. And I also wanted it to be heartening and I wanted it to be fortifying. The idea is that once people are armed with this knowledge and this understanding, they simply can’t treat soil like dirt.
I also feel that one of the problems today is that most people have a hard time connecting with nature. It’s just the way our lives are now. We spend a lot of time online, we spent a lot of time running around and so we see “the environment” as something that is out there. What I am trying to do in this film is to give people a sense of connection with nature, a sense that they are part of nature.
When you feel that connection and when you deeply value nature, those feelings change how you live your life. Film is ultimately an emotional medium, so even when I have a lot of information that information has to be grounded in a kind of emotional understanding. I want people to stay “in the film.” Anything that distances them gets cut out. I want people to love my work and to want to share it.
It’s a tricky thing I think to make people realize that the stakes are very high, which they are, and that there are actions we can take to help create a wholesome future and that we must do that now. I did this pretty well in “The Future of Food.” It’s actually a lot more difficult than people may realize to make a film that keeps people connected through bad news so that they’ll hang in there and realize, wow yes there is a lot of bad news but the good news is that there is something I can do about it, and I’m going to do it, I have to do it.
Not that many films actually achieve that. They often just bring all the bad news and then promote that it’s a powerful film, but to my mind you can go online and get all that bad news in five seconds. The challenge is to make a transformational film that moves the audience enough to really change their minds and actions. Another thing is that it’s part of my philosophy as a filmmaker that I want people who see my films to have a sense that they’re in good hands.
I think that’s very important to have faith between the filmmaker and the audience that the experience is going to be a good one, that that you’re in good hands and this is going to be healing even though there is difficult information here, even though we’re dealing with tough issues, ultimately you will be fortified and heartened.
HPR: I am sure you learned many things during the process of making “Symphony of the Soil,” but what is one specific thing you discovered that surprised you and stuck with you?
DKG: When I started researching the film I bought and read a lot of soil textbooks and books on soil so I had a lot of book learning. Then I started interviewing people and started seeing soil from their point of view, whether scientific or agricultural or cultural. Then at some point I really got soil; I understood that soil is alive. I really got the sense that soil is an living organism that is filled with life and constantly changing and made up of all kinds of organisms from the tiniest little critter to herds of animals to us – the soil community.
I got the sense that there were all kinds of processes going on, and cycles and transformations. So I went from basically being soil blind to being overwhelmed with how complex soil is. Right around then, I was out for a walk one day and I looked out at the hills where I walk and have walked for many years and I just suddenly got the idea, “My God, it’s all alive out there. It’s all moving and breathing and changing.”
I got this sense of life: organisms churning through the soil and microorganisms eating each other in releasing nutrients and roots and exudates and chemical reactions going on, massive complexity. I realized I’d looked out on this land for years and not seen it that way, then I learned all this stuff and I look out and thought, “Wow, this is just a miracle, you know, it’s a miracle that soil exists and it’s a miracle that we humans have risen up out of it” and there was for me at that moment an experience of reverence towards all of life in all its glory. So then I knew what I wanted the film to be: to start off with science and end up with a sense of the sacred.
HPR: You are a self-described food fanatic. What is your absolute favorite meal to prepare yourself and serve to friends or to eat at a restaurant?
DKG: I live in Northern California which I think has the best food in the world because we can grow stuff year-round and what we grow is so wonderful, so that totally influences my favorite food. My favorite meal is a simple one, all organic of course: maybe start with artichokes from my garden, then wild salmon from the coast, lovely greens from my garden like chard or kale or dandelion greens or all of them with lots of garlic, maybe green garlic, some other vegetables in season like beets, and a nice grain say millet or brown rice, then a lovely salad from my garden with a dressing of local olive oil and lemons from my lemon trees, and maybe some perfect fresh peaches for dessert from my little orchard, shared with friends.
I also love good local cheese. And maybe a special occasion flourless chocolate cake, not from my garden. I actually get a CSA box from a great local farm so I don’t eat everything out of my garden but I thought I would just do a little bragging since you asked.