The Cycle of Life – The Soil Association’s first forays into film making
20 September 2013
The Soil Association was founded as an educational and research body with charitable status, and in its early years had a formal Education Committee. With distribution of knowledge one of the Association’s objects, in 1949 the Education Committee set about making a film to present “a clear and logical case” for organic farming’s fundamental principle, “observance of the Law of Return” (of wastes to the soil).
The film’s original script was written by JJW Menzies, the Education Committee’s Chairman, who was also responsible for the technical direction. A 35mm two-reeler, lasting a little under half an hour, The Cycle of Life received its premiere on 5 July 1950 at the Royal Empire Society. This choice of venue reminds us that the Association had many overseas members and that soil erosion was a major concern in various parts of the British Empire.
According to a contemporaneous report in the Association’s journal Mother Earth (admittedly not an unbiased source) the film was generally acclaimed as “a first-rate production” likely to “be an immense asset”. Mother Earth did not, though, report on the film’s later progress, so unfortunately we do not know how far the prediction was justified.
– Philip Conford.
In the early years of our new century, the advent of relatively cheap, high quality digital film cameras, alongside the growth of ‘social’ internet services such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, has opened up the potential of using film-making to reach new audiences for many NGOs and charities. Once the preserve only of the very well-funded, film-making distribution has become both cheap and easy, and subsequently there has been an explosion in the number of films being made by campaign groups.
Normally designed to catch the attention of the social internet, and encourage the viewer to take part in a specific action or intervention, the ultimate goal of such films is to reach ‘viral’ status – the lovely moment when a film grabs the attention of the public, and through the ease and power of sharing across social networks, views of the film increase exponentially in a very short period (for example, last year the US NGO Invisible Children’s film Kony 2012, which sought to push for the arrest of a particularly brutal warlord in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was viewed on YoutTube more than 97 million times in six months).
In recent years the Soil Association has not been immune to this trend – a glance at the Association’s YouTube channel reveals nearly 40 films, all posted within the last five years, covering subjects as diverse as school’s farmers markets, the planting of phacelia seeds to help bees, organic lambing ‘live’, profiles of Soil Association licensees, peak oil and the state of the organic market in sales terms. And for anyone working in a modern communications department, it is very easy to assume that the trend for taking one’s messages direct to audiences through film is something very new, and cutting edge.
In this context, it is fascinating to reflect that in 1950, just some four years into its life, the Soil Association had the vision and wherewithal to produce a 27 minute long film, The Cycle of Life, with the aim or promoting its cause, making the logical case for the rule of return, and influencing public opinion. Given the tendency for critics of the organic movement to paint the Soil Association as an essentially Luddite, backwards looking outfit, the film provides more evidence to this viewer of just how ‘modern’ the early organic pioneers were in their thinking; modern being used here as a synonym for ‘extraordinarily prescient of, and relevant to, the pressing climate, environmental and social justice concerns of the early 21st century’. Both in thought – the early concern with ecology, the recognition of health as a holistic, positive process, rather than merely the absence of disease, and the sense of the long-view in terms of farm sustainability; and in practice – for example, Robert Stuart’s work to recycle municipal waste into compost in East Lothian in the 1950s and hence avoid wasteful landfill (a process that sixty years later has become the established norm nationwide), or the attempt to take the organic message to the masses through direct film making.
Watching the film today is an interesting experience. And, given that so many of the film’s concerns, as well as the specific communication medium are both still so relevant today, what can the modern Soil Association learn from its past foray into film-making?
To educate and inform
As a film, The Cycle of Life is clearly well made, with professional production values (despite the degradation in quality of existing copies, which is in part due to the transfer from tape to DVD). Its purpose is an explanation of the rule of return in agriculture in ensuring the fertility of our soil, and a description of how ‘chemical’ agricultural techniques, and the urbanisation of the industrial revolution have conspired to break the natural cycle of nutrients; with dire effects to the health of our soil, animals and ourselves. In essence the film aims to educate the viewer as to the drawbacks of industrial farming, and obviously owes much to the Reithian ethos of “educating and informing” that was a common feature of the BBC’s output of the time.
While the film is structured around a continuous, driving narrative, it can be broken down into a number of discrete, and at times contrasting, scenes. The introductory section grabs the viewer with an almost apocalyptic tone as it lays out the pitfalls of modern agriculture. Pictures flash to create a montage of epic floods, dustbowls, and abandoned civilisations, and the voiceover exhorts the viewer that “this is no armchair problem, or dusty academic wrangle,” what is at stake, we are told is the “plain, simple survival of your children or grandchildren”.
After this arresting start, the film changes tack, and narrows its focus; a housewife doing the grocery shopping expresses a profound alienation from how her food is produced, and then we visit an idyllic rural wood, for a two-hander between an older Country-gent and a younger, and presumably city dwelling, companion. The scene’s question and answer session serves as a gentle description of a living soil and humus, with examples of forest floors and worm populations that operate on a very human scale.
We then sweep out from the first person back to the montage and voiceover style of its opening credits. This time though the tone is more measured; this is really the meat of the film and it concerns itself with a historical description of the rise of “chemical farming”; first through nitrogen fertilisers, and then through chemical pesticides to fight the diseases that were “unheard of in the days of muck farming”.
Having made its central argument – that chemical agriculture is a vicious cycle that leads to disease and environmental degradation, and that a return to the ‘rule of return’ of muck farming is essential – the penultimate section of the film re-focuses itself on the immediately practical, with a detailed ‘how-to’ guide to making compost in the back-yard and on farm.
The final ‘scene’ of the film sees the first entrance of the Soil Association, and a return to the epic sweep of the opening. The Haughley Experiment is described, and then we build to a summation of the film – we have been shown how civilisations crumbled to dust, why virgin soil is naturally fertile, how our health depends on the quality of the food we eat, not the quantity, and we have seen how man has turned his back on the law of return. “The vast majority of the peoples of the world have not the slightest idea of the grim picture of famine and death which threatens them,” we are told. At this point the film reveals what in modern communications parlance would be called its key ‘ask’: “Whether you live in the town or the country. . . you as an individual can aid by adding your voice to the united opinion of the Soil Association. Your active support will strengthen its growing influence for a healthier and happier world, and indeed the ultimate survival of mankind.” The credits then roll.
As a historic piece The Cycle of Life is fascinating – one can place it not only in a tradition of public service broadcasts typical of the period, but also discern some of the Cold War influenced themes of impending apocalypse that one finds in the Hollywood noir and sci-fi films of the period. And while some of the content almost inevitably appears a little dated (the scene of Sir Robert McCarrison, sitting behind a desk, reading from a script and looking deeply uncomfortable perhaps doesn’t do historical justice to his huge influence), it is fascinating that so many of the issues that the film identifies still resonate so strongly today – the health bringing properties of our food, the state of our soils, and the damage done to our flora and fauna through an industrial approach to farming.
Given that much of the film still retains such relevance, what can the modern Soil Association learn from the film? At 27 minutes long, The Cycle of Life is not a short film, and requires attention from the viewer. Generally though, it holds one’s attention, and perhaps where it works best is in both describing and visually showing the subject matter at hand – a written description of humus, even a photograph, only goes so far in describing the nature and quality of a healthy, fertile soil for example, and when the film focuses in on the specifics of humus, worm populations and even mycorrhizal fungi, it brings some of these important concepts alive to a non-specialist audience in a successful way, that can surely be learnt from and reproduced.
Likewise, whereas the method of compost making demonstrated is perhaps a little intimidating to a modern viewer (the ‘domestic’ compost pile that the film demonstrates is a cubic meter in size, and takes two men to fill with layers of soil, vegetable clippings and fish-scraps; where the average household was to find a cubic metre of these materials from is not clear), the idea of practical video guides to specific organic techniques obviously has a lot of merit. Indeed, just this Spring the Soil Association produced a short video on its website featuring TV gardener Alys Fowler explaining how to use phacelia as a green manure and bee food, so this is perhaps a lesson already absorbed.
The middle section of the film also successfully covers a lot of ground on the historical development of agriculture in fairly short order, and again the use of montage, and even diagrams, helps to bring some of these concepts to life for a wider audience – particularly important given that lots of this material remains at the heart of the Organic movement’s mission. The tone in this section is particularly interesting with regards to how the film apportions any blame for the problems of modern agriculture; ‘chemical’ farmers are not portrayed as villains, but rather, if not exactly victims, then certainly as unwilling participants in the new approach to agriculture: “with quality unimportant, quantity became the prominent factor”. . . and hence the farmer “had no alternative”.
In this language one can certainly detect a desire of the film-makers to avoid accusing, and hence alienating, the non-organic farmers they sought to influence. And yet, it is not entirely clear what message the film-makers intend these non-organic farmers to take from the film as a whole – when faced with the question “who kills the bees that pollinate the blossom?” or the suggestion that pesticide soaked food is not safe to eat, it is certainly easy to imagine a ‘chemical’ farmer of the 1950s feeling attacked by some of the film’s overall tone. This tension between highlighting the deep flaws and negative aspects inherent in non-organic farming, while trying not to upset the many non-organic farmers who feel threatened by such scrutiny, is one that has followed, and sometimes confounded, the Soil Association through its subsequent history – indeed within this very issue of Mother Earth, Mike Gooding, who is an organic farmer, objects to what he perceives as Colin Tudge’s overly virtuous use of the term “real farming”. If we can learn anything from the film on this count it is in observing just how extraordinarily hard it can be to tailor effective messages to differing audiences (farmers and the public) without some engendering some conflict or bad feeling.
There is also a wider unevenness in tone that reveals a wider question that the Association has faced in communicating the benefits of organic over time; to encourage the uptake of organic agriculture, is it more effective overall to paint a negative picture as a reason to motivate change, or accentuate the positive benefits of adopting organic farming for people and the planet? The film seems to try both approaches in succession, literally jumping from the apocalypse of ancient civilisations, to a housewife doing her grocery, to a pleasant forest walk with two chaps discussing worms, and onwards, finally arriving at a “grim picture of famine and death”. This journey creates a dissonance that can leave the viewer disorientated – and perhaps compromises the overall effectiveness of the message. It is beyond the scope of this piece to give a definitive answer as to whether a positive or negative approach is a better tactic (if indeed one exists); however what can be suggested is that in any individual piece of media (be that film, speech or words), to a lesser or greater degree one should choose a discrete approach (be it the positive or negative approach) and stick to it throughout.
For this viewer, perhaps the most important lesson to learn, is how the film handles its ‘ask’ to join the Soil Association at the end. Having taken the viewer on a journey through dustbowls, floods and potential famine, the solution the film proposes to these existential threats is simply to join the Soil Association, in order to increase the Association’s influence. Given the scale of the problems articulated, this seems somewhat anti-climatic and inadequate – if one’s children really are under direct threat, is paying a monthly subscription to a membership charity the most compelling or believable response one can make?
This is not to downplay the importance or worth of taking such action – joining the Soil Association is a worthy endeavour, and always to be encouraged.
Nevertheless, the deeper point is that if we want to convince people to take a certain action, be that joining the Soil Association, signing a petition, buying this particular product, or whatever else it may be, it is important that that action is believable as a response to the threat that has been articulated. If the film teaches us just one thing as a movement, then perhaps it should be this: that we must present problems in a fashion that the audience can both understand and connect with in a personal way, and the solutions we propose in response must ‘feel’ immediately relevant and proportionate to the audience.
In conclusion The Cycle of Life is both a fascinating and inspiring historical snap-shot of the early years of the Soil Association, and an intriguing example of some of the audience and tone challenges that the Soil Association of today still faces every day in its public communications. For those with internet access you can watch the film yourself on our website at www.soilassociation.org/motherearth and judge for yourselves what can be learnt from the film.