‘Planet Soil’ Film Review

Planet Soil Film Review
By Darlene Belton, Master Gardener

On November 18, a sell-out audience of privileged gardeners and friends participated in the premiere showing in Canada of the internationally acclaimed, award-winning documentary, Planet Soil. Filmed in the Netherlands, the 77-minute film explores the intricate connections linking the staggeringly abundant life beneath the soil with that above to create and sustain the mysterious systems of our living planet.

The journey of Planet Soil to Winnipeg’s Cinematheque theatre began with the team of dedicated filmmakers who created Planet Soil, leading to an August 19, 2023 Winnipeg Free Press review article by MMGA co-founder and journalist Colleen Zacharias, who described the extraordinary filming innovations that brought microscopic soil creatures to the big screen. Colleen’s article spurred Sophie Munro of the Charleswood Garden Club to email her extensive gardening network to stimulate interest in bringing the film to Manitoba. Two horticultural organizations responded – the Manitoba Horticultural Association (MHA) and the Manitoba Master Gardener Association (MMGA). Contact was made with the filmmakers, Mark Verkerk and Ignas van Schaik, who were pleased to hear of our local interest. Plans took off rapidly and the two organizations co-hosted this event so important for the knowledge base of all gardeners.

Besides revealing miraculous soil life never before seen in this intensity on screen, the film is beautiful. Brilliant use of time-lapse photography shows us the lace-like explosion of fungal growth over four to five months in seconds as the narrative explains how mazes of threadlike microscopic fungal hyphae permeate the soil to find nutrients to bring to plant roots in exchange for the sugars from photosynthesis that fungi need to survive but cannot produce themselves. We watch as the excretions of earthworms and nematodes lubricate the soil as they burrow to help create aggregates that allow for the passage of water and air to sustain smaller life forms. We see a mole blindly tunneling to find earthworms and soil-dwelling insects as it plays out its role in the soil food web. And we see more, much more.

Probably as important as the extraordinary cinematography, the film offers hope, hope that is so needed in our climate-stressed era. We see some regenerative projects in Europe that utilize this emerging science-based knowledge of living soil as the very foundation of all land-based life. The projects often involve children who learn to appreciate, not fear, the soil’s unfamiliar or strange-looking small creatures.

For those who missed the inaugural screening and due to the acclaim of viewers, another showing will be hosted by the MMGA and the MHA on Saturday, February 3rd, 2024, at 12:00 noon, also at the Cinematheque theatre (tickets available via the MMGA and MHA websites in early January). Like the first event, this showing will be followed by a Zoom Q&A with Mark Verkerk, director of Planet Soil.

The Zoom Q&A at the November viewing was a surprise for me – and was a significant bonus, showing that our Covid lockdown years managing Zoom meetings were not wasted. As I had to leave early, MMGA member Lisa Renner took notes for me from the Q&A, referred to below.

Highlights of the live Q&A session with Mark Verkerk

Explaining that he was not a biologist, Mark responded to the first question that the film missed aspects of the complex relationship of the soil, air, and water, by saying that Planet Soil’s goal was intended to be a first level, graphically visual introduction to present how significantly below-ground activity impacts life above ground. He added that there could be 100 more films made on this topic. Mark described the technical challenges of capturing the enormous range of soil creatures, from earthworms to bacteria, and then demonstrating their interrelationships. Microscopes and a specially developed lens system created depth for the colourful three-dimensional shots.

Electron microscopes were not used, Mark said, because this requires organisms to be killed and their intention was to represent live interactions. The filmmakers showed admirable respect for their small subjects. For example, fresh soil plugs were placed in containers with holes to permit filming, then the soil and its living contents were returned to the exact extraction sites.

Special methodology was used to keep fungi alive and its growth filmable over the three-to-four-month period of its beautiful, intricate expansion to present in mere seconds through time lapse photography. Recordings of the ‘sound of soil’ were done by musician and recording artist Cosmo Sheldrake. The captured sounds, mostly beyond unassisted human hearing, are increasingly tapped into by scientists to assess levels of soil biodiversity.

MMGA emeritus member Lenore Linton captured the sentiments of many in the audience with her heartfelt thank you to Mark and the film team for always relating what happens below ground to its impact above ground, plus, among much else, to our duty as gardeners ‘to give back’ when we take from the earth. She referred to the scene where beet leaves were left on the ground to nurture the soil, adding that she even eats the beet leaves!

To this remark, Director Mark Verkerk generously replied, “But if you are composting, you are giving back.”