Digging in: Deborah Koons Garcia offers insight on soil in a series of films.

Koons Garcia Runs Fingers Through 'Soil'

Michael Fox July 14, 2010

When Deborah Koons Garcia was in postproduction on The Future of Food, her editor warned, “No one will watch it, no festival will play it, because there are no personal stories.”  That’s the prevailing approach of American documentary nowadays, but Koons Garcia paid no mind. “We made it beautiful and watchable and musical,” she recalls, and the doc went on to open at New York’s Film Forum and play 30 cities. Her follow-up, Symphony of the Soil, is even more experimental and ambitious, comprising two feature-length docs and 15 satellite shorts. Yet Koons Garcia sees the project as an endeavor with mass appeal. “It used to be the #1 hobby was gardening,” she notes. “In the '70s and '80s, it became shopping. Now people don’t have money and it’s going back to gardening.”

The first film, Soil and Life, combines lovely music and artful camerawork in a graceful presentation of the different kinds of soil and how soil works. “People will feel a kind of wonder about soil, and they’ll see it in a way they had not before,” Koons Garcia promises. “They’ll have a deep understanding of how complex soil is. There’s a lot of science in it, but I wouldn’t call it a science film. It’s an artistic treatment of soil with good deep science in it, but much trippier than a science film.”

The Anthropogenic Era, the second feature, examines humans’ relationship to soil. “It’s everything from agriculture, which is obviously the primary interest, to the latest research on rich relationship between carbon and soil,” Koons Garcia says. “Silicon Valley used to be called the Garden Valley and now it’s all paved over. We’ve lost that. In terms of how we’re able to feed ourselves, we shouldn’t treat soil like dirt.”

The first short, Soil In Good Heart has been on the festival circuit for the last year and is available for purchase on DVD.  The next three shorts have been completed except for the replacement of temp music with scores to. Although these works are primarily aimed at the Web, the filmmaker has discovered another outlet. “One of the things people like to do these days, at meetings, is they want something a little shorter and then to talk about it,” Koons Garcia relates. “A 90-minute film is too long, but a 15-minute or two 15-minute films, is perfect.”

Instead of soliciting grants, Koons Garcia is funding The Symphony of Soil in large part with the revenue from her last project. She kept the DVD rights to The Future of Food, selling the disc at Whole Foods stores and through her Web site. The key to the latter, she confides, is serious outreach.

“It was not uncommon for people to buy 50 copies and send it to their friends,” she says. “My model is to make a really good film and make sure people find out about it. All the time people are calling up or emailing, ‘I have a copy [purchased for $25] and I want to show it to my group. What do I do?’ ‘Send us the other $5.’ If they pay the $100 fee, they can screen as many times as they like. If they want to screen it every week and charge people $5 to come in, if they can make money off it, more power to them.”

Koons Garcia seems to have found the balance that every social-issue documentary maker craves, namely having their work seen and passed around while also bringing in some cash from DVD sales. “I’m a strong believer that you have to educate the public to support filmmakers they like,” Koons Garcia declares. “If you like a filmmaker, you pay for that filmmaker’s work. Otherwise they won’t be able to do another film.”

The two feature-length docs will be ready early in 2011, Koons Garcia anticipates, and her intent is that they be released together. Sooner is better, she suggests, given the impending danger to our food supply.

“The scary message is we are facing peak soil,” she says. “If we keep farming the way we are now, we’ll be out of topsoil in 40 years worldwide. The positive part is soil is alive and resilient, and we are all part of the soil community. With really focused, doable changes we could heal the whole planet by treating the soil differently. We could solve all our problems if we treated the soil right. And it could take three to five years.”

The trick for Koons Garcia is making films that are artistic and pleasurable in their own right, yet can educate, inspire and turn on audiences.

“There are all these problem documentaries, and they’re bummers,” she declares. “There’s not much you [as a viewer] can do about [the problem]. We’re going to make Symphony of the Soil very positive. We’re enhancing people’s appreciation of the world, and they’ll be drawn to it and want that experience.” To keep up with the project, visit

Notes From the Underground
Lynn Hershman Leeson has been awarded the 2010 d.velop digital art award (ddaa), a lifetime achievement honor given biannually by the Digital Art Museum (DAM) in Berlin. Along with 20,000 euros, Leeson will receive a retrospective exhibition at the Kunsthalle Bremen. . . . The first annual Silicon Valley Film Festival, “celebrating entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial spirit and innovation in cinema,” unspools Aug. 21. Find out more at . . . . Sean Penn starts production Aug. 16 in Ireland on This Must Be the Place, the English-language debut of Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo). Penn plays a retired rock star looking for the Nazi who ordered his father’s wartime execution.

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