Director: Joshua Tickell, Rebecca Harrell Tickell
Streaming Platform: Netflix
There’s a lot here, in this 1 hour 20 minute Netflix documentary, that I did not know, or was perhaps only peripherally aware of. I did not know that soil contains not only moisture but also carbon dioxide, and when the top soil erodes during tilling or other destructive practices, the carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. (I had always thought of tilling as indispensable to agriculture; apparently not.) There is a beautiful graphic in Kiss The Ground that shows how the CO2 amounts in the atmosphere wax during tilling season in April, and how they wane when the plants grow in August, absorbing this CO2.
I did not know how important soil is to rain, how important it is to temperature, and thus, the roving cyclones that are displacing thousands, millions, and by 2050, billions from their homes. But a documentary’s gift is not just in telling you things you didn’t know, but doing so with economy, effectiveness and grit. Here, the grit exists but is lost under the weight of the meandering narrative.
It starts off from a moment of hopelessness when actor and voice-over Woody Harrelson declares, “The truth is, I have given up.” From here, the story journeys into ranchers, farmers, conservation agronomists, and scientists telling us how the Earth is destroyed and how much of the frayed fabric can be patched and how. To keep it pop-culture frothy it is peppered with special appearances from an NFL quarterback and about a half a dozen Hollywood celebrities- Gisele Bündchen, Rosario Dawson, David Arquette, Jason Mraz, and Ian Somerhalder- many of whom fund foundations working in these fields.
The graphics, while compelling, would be far more effective in a 4 minute Vox video, because here, the incisive science is almost belittled by the bloated emotiveness of Jason Mraz’ ‘I won’t give up’ that plays towards the end, and the rousing monologue of platitudes. The science that felt fatalistic is underlined by snapshots of happy families doing happy things, happy elephants doing happy things. I have always felt that if you walk out of a social issue related film/documentary with more hope than anger, more optimism than fear, that the film/documentary has somewhere failed; that it’s become too pop-culture oriented to be of any social impact. If you disagree with me, you will most probably walk out of Kiss The Ground kissing the ground.
But even with its emotiveness, it is not a well organized documentary. The transitions from one soil related issue to the next feels discordant. Terminologies litter the fatalism, but rarely shape it into cogs in a well-oiled wheel. The historical context helps- how the devastating dust bowl of the 1930s in America led to mass migration and the creation of the Soil Conservation Service, and how poison used by the Nazis in gas chambers were repurposed into pesticides and fertilizers we use today. What it also does well is make both the ethical and economic case for soil conservation- that it is not only our duty to do so, but it also benefits the pocket, leading to sustainable land that doesn’t need government handouts of subsidies to make profits.
What I wish it did was have a less American gaze to the story, but I understand how futile this wish is given it’s a Netflix America production. Perhaps this requires Netflix India to pull up its socks. The only mention of India in this documentary was when it failed to sign onto a COP21 soil conservation agreement, along with China and America. There’s something very scratch-the-surface about this documentary, a similar problem I had with Netflix’s The Social Dilemma. But unlike that film which was a laundry list of problems, this documentary felt like a laundry list of solutions. One used fatalism to make its point, and one benign optimism. The former was fodder for drama without an upshot, and the latter for reticent hope. I didn’t care much for either.