Meet the Filmmakers: Gene Rosow and Bill Benenson--'DIRT! The Movie'

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work
will be represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, July 31-August 20 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here are Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow, directors/producers/writers of DIRT! The Movie..

Synopsis: Floods, drought, climate change, even war are all directly related to the way we are treating dirt. DIRT! The Movie, directed and produced by Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow, tells the story of Earth's most valuable and underappreciated source of fertility--from its miraculous beginning to its crippling degradation. Made from the same elements as the stars, plants and animals, and us, "Dirt is very much alive."

DIRT! The Movie, narrated by Jamie Lee Curtis, brings to life the environmental, economic, social and political impact that the soil has. It shares the stories of experts from all over the world--Majora Carter, Waangari Mathai, Vandana Shiva and many more--who are able to harness the beauty and power of a respectful and mutually beneficial relationship with soil.

DIRT! The Movie is a call to action. What we've destroyed, we can heal. 

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Bill Benenson: In 1970, I saw a sculpture from Easter Island in a modern foundry in New England and asked it was doing here, and was told that it was being cast for replication to be sold to schools and museums in America. My next question was, Can I make a film about it? Easter Island Raises was shot in Connecticut and on Easter Island.

From Easter Island, I went back to Northern Eastern Brazil, where I had served two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, and made what turned out to be a half-hour documentary, Diamond Rivers, which was shown on PBS through WNET New York. It was the story of diamond prospecting and global change, seen through the eyes of a very seasoned diamond prospector, Geraldo Santos Neves, in the Sertao of Bahia, Brazil.

From there my next documentary was The Marginal Way, a portrait of Ogunquit, Maine, as told through the lives of its fishermen, artists, policemen, retirees and tourists in the summer of 1973. This hour-long film was also shown nationally on PBS through WNET New York.

Gene Rosow: As a kid I grew up in a film industry town and spent time on studio movie sets, which planted a seed. This became a seedling when I migrated to film from large format still photography. I put in some time at film school (UCLA), but it was for film history, which was great for viewing films (before tape/DVD). A career looking at and writing about films and teaching seemed great until one day, while I was teaching film history at UC Berkeley, I bought a used Bolex and started shooting. Oh yeah...better learn to edit. I became a union editor and finished a doctoral dissertation on gangster films, which I thought would be way more interesting to turn in as a film. "Sure,"said the Department of long as I wrote it, too. (They fooled me on that one). I did both (Supposedly, it was the very first doctoral history dissertation on film.) and published a book about gangster movies (Born to Lose). I went on to make my own
films, work with and for other people, in almost every part of film/TV production. Images, ideas, telling stories that would somehow make the world a better place: I plunged into full-time filmmaking and never looked back (well, sometimes.). I found each film took me to a new world, literally and
figuratively, and challenged me to make some sense of that world and express something about it in a way that would move an audience.

IDA: What inspired you to make DIRT! The Movie?  

BB: DIRT! The Movie cried out to be made, after reading Bill Logan's Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, or at least we felt that Dirt wanted to be formed into a feature film after we understood its complete primal importance to us all.  

GR: I read this amazing book-and the subject spoke to every part of me. As a former science student (pre-med, biochemistry, cellular physiology, parasitology, and, at the time, the new field of ecology), history teacher at UC Berkeley (history of popular culture and American film), and early organic gardener, whose favorite poet, Gary Snyder, was always going on about dirt, this book had a certain life history resonance. As a filmmaker who has made documentaries, fiction, short animated films, experimental shorts, this film seemed a natural. As a producer of theatrical feature films, the subject of dirt definitely offered the challenge of finding the right way to get dirt up
there on the big screen...back to the cave walls where we smeared dirt to make art in the first place. But more than that, after reading the book I realized how out of touch I had become with the ground beneath our feet and how I, like most city people, take dirt for granted. After reading the book I knew I would never again look at the ground beneath my feet in the same way. Why not make a film that could do the same thing? And thinking back, as a film historian, I hadn't yet seen a movie in which Dirt is the main subject. Could we do something with this?! Absolutely! And so we did.

When we started out on this project, we were thinking of either a four-part television series or a feature-length documentary for theatrical release. We could either explore the subject as a topic, as the book had done, or with a more traditional film narrative--in our case, telling the story of Dirt and humans from Dirt's point of view. Bill Benenson and I had both produced feature films as well as documentaries for television, or in my case, for theatrical release. But two developments changed the whole scope of the project. When we began to tell the story of dirt, to many it seemed like a
quirky topic, an intriguing, typical indie subject. But over the five years (!) we've been working on this project, the subject became more central in concert with such issues as climate change, the global crises in food production and safety, and rampant destruction of the environment. 

I wanted to make a film with a fresh look at the environment: Dramatic, funny, scary, and practically hopeful, showing that another world is possible from the ground up. And the bandwidth of the media through which we could tell our story expanded--and is expanding dramatically. We had always conceived of the story as one that should be told using various media in different versions (for educational and community outreach). So now the story has the potential to blast past traditional
feature-film length or television formats and explore its own viral universe. The story we are telling first in feature documentary film format is turning out to be the tail that wags a media dog of educational and public engagement projects devoted to imagining a sustainable future. That
means that subjects presented in the film for two to four minutes can be expanded to 20-minute stand-alone documentaries, or in some cases, hour-long programs suitable for television, as well as "dirtisodes" for the Web and mobile technologies that allow us to present the story in a multi-platform media mosaic.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

BB: Any film that gets made and exhibited properly is a miracle, as Tony Bill, my producing partner on Boulevard Nights, told me in 1978 while doing my first theatrical movie. His wisdom remains true--truer today. We had to shoot around the world and we encountered obstacles everywhere, like all filmmakers. But the importance of Dirt and its unsung story drove/drives us onward. But the biggest problem was making a film as important as Dirt, which
is ignored and misused. Our lives depend on Dirt's health, and by making this film I hope we can understand and respect our true heritage and life source.

GR: The biggest challenge--beyond convincing our friends and families that making a film about dirt was not crazy-was simply, how to do it? How indeed...The book we optioned in the warm glow of possibilities is a series of essays--a magical, meditative journey through the wonders of dirt. Some great characters, history, science, biblical tales, and astonishing insights, but there was no inherent story inviting adaptation. The topic was definitely cool, but the biggest challenge for us was to think of the topic in storytelling terms. Dirt's story needed to fun, scary, serious, emotional, spiritual, dramatic and visually compelling--with a cast of billions. So I thought we should try to tell the story of Dirt and humans from Dirt's point of view: What was the relationship of humans and dirt like if you looked at it from Dirt's point of view? Bill Logan, the author of the book, was skeptical, but at least not insulted by the attempt, and so we tried.

Dirt is a subject that ranges from macro (as in deep space and time) to micro (billions of micro-organisms in a teaspoon of dirt) and around the world--with music, animation, FX--and one that we had never seen done. So to meet this challenge, we decided that we should do a pre-visualization cut for both creative and logistical reasons: to both narrow down the subjects and work out a narrative line that would set up our long-standing love and understanding of Dirt; show how we lost touch and grew abusive; and reveal the people around the planet that might heal Dirt and put us back in touch with it and ourselves. I wrote the script, and we worked with a talented animation writer to work on the voice of Dirt. We put the cut together using pre-existing footage and scratch

So, did we meet challenge number one? Telling the story from Dirt's POV worked for a while, but we couldn't make it work in terms of sustaining a feature-length doc...It was too cheesy--or maybe we were. The story structure worked in theory, and we turned to a more traditional documentary approach with the story we developed as a baseline for the music of rest of the film. The subjects we chose were, in fact, great. The topic was unique and could be compelling. The pre-visualization
showed us what would not work, but also showed us what could work. So we answered Dirt's call and set out filming. Both Bill and I knew we had taken on the most difficult film that either of us had ever worked on. And this was only the beginning of all the usual challenges that confront filmmakers: financing, putting together a team of collaborators, convincing people to be filmed, etc.

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

BB: We discovered, through the course of making the film, not being scientists or farmers beforehand, that Dirt Is Alive! It is literally a living, breathing membrane, upon which we all depend, on a daily basis. If Dirt weren't alive, we wouldn't be here. This discovery animates our film.

GR: The vision changed in many ways while remaining true to the spirit with which we began the film. My approach to this film combined--and required--all my experiences in making and producing documentaries, theatrical feature films, Internet animation and experimental
films; and in writing, producing music albums and using films to promote social action and social justice. The fundamental approach to the film had to be one of being open to where the film and the material take you. What is there to learn from the subjects of the film, as well as the people with whom you work?  So the vision changed in terms of subjects as we expanded outward from the book and prioritized whom to film, and what they had to say. Having made films that range from "Pick up a camera and start shooting" (San Francisco Good Times) to fully scripted documentaries (Knights, a nine-part series for French TV Canal +) to animated films, I had to draw on all those experiences and be flexible enough to see how they fit in with making a film about dirt. And so we took an approach that used traditional documentary interview and sequence filming, world music, animation and third-person narration (presented by Jamie Lee Curtis), and we kept an eye on the underlying story we set out to tell.

The vision of the overall project also changed: What started out as a film evolved into an overall media project designed to educate and activate people about what we have come to regard as a fundamental issue in preserving our planet.

I have made and distributed anti-war films in the Vietnam era, and had previously shared that wonderful filmmaker conceit that if we just make a film we can change the world. Certainly that has worked for brave films that live at the tipping point of a change in consciousness, like An Inconvenient Truth. But we are in the midst of a fundamental shift in perspective in how we use film/media to promote positive change and a sustainable world. 

IDA: As you've screened DIRT! The Movie--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

BB: We have been most surprised and elated that people come to love DIRT!. The film has reached an emotional center we could never have guessed before we learned to listen to Dirt and its message of giving back life.

GR: So far on the festival circuit the audience reactions have been great. People tell us that they are glad we made the film, that they enjoyed a fresh documentary approach to a serious subject that invites audiences in with humor and music and drama. Perhaps most surprising--and gratifying--is that people keep telling us this is "an important film," and at
every festival screening people have asked, "What can we do?" It's always great when audiences enjoy your film as a film, but it's even better when you can feel that you've connected with people's motivation and real interest in taking action.

IDA:  What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

BB: Al Gore was an awful candidate for President but has become a real inspiration for all subsequent filmmakers after his participation in Davis Guggenheim's brilliant An Inconvenient Truth. Michael Moore and Sasha Baron Cohen are both expertly irreverent and bring a necessary insight through humor to a world getting way too serious; I hope our film is also balanced by a sense of joy and novelty that those tricksters express.

But of course the real inspiration for our film has been our growing awareness of the Earth's plight and the people who are striving to fix our only planet as we spin on a ever-wobblier orbit right now. Hopefully our Dirt heroes will help us get back in balance with nature, with Dirt, and with a better place quickly.

GR:  Inspirational creative influences on my doc sensibility past and present are too many to list. They include filmmakers, photographers, musicians, political and social activists (a great deal of creativity required), gurus (who understand how the flow of energy goes through all creation), and three generations of family members whose challenging perspectives always influence me. Off the top of my head, filmmakers--both doc and fiction-- include Melies, Eisentstein, Ozu, Keaton, Chaplin, Joris Ivens, Chris Marker, Godard, Ford, Hawkes, Renoir, Brakhage, Grierson....Maysles, Wiseman... and the current wave of docmakers who realize that the films we make are playing a fundamental role in shifting our consciousness about how we treat our planet and each other. Films: Man with a Movie Camera, Nanook of the North, Rain, Manhatta, Harlan County USA, Koyaanisqatsi. Night and Fog, Grey Gardens, Winged Migration, The Sorrow and The Pity, Shoah.... And more!!!

DIRT! The Movie will be screening at the ArcLight Hollywood Cinema in Los Angeles and the IFC Center in New York City.

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