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reed magazine logoDecember 2010

Digging Dirt

Laurie Halpern Benenson ’71

Laurie Benenson


Dirty deals. Filthy language. Soiled linen. Stained honor. It’s hard to deny that earth is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Aristotelian elements. But Laurie Halpern Benenson ’71 is hoping her production, Dirt! The Movie, can help this elemental matter finally get a little respect.

Inspired by arborist Bill Logan’s paean, Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, the film uses a lighthearted cinematic touch to raise the profile of soil and its conservation to a popular audience. Bringing this book to the screen took considerable effort. “It’s not an obvious book to make a movie out of,” Laurie notes. “It consists of a series of essays about soil. But the deeper into the project we got, the more important the topic became . . . The more we worked on it, the more critical we realized this was. At some point, we felt as if dirt were using us to tell its story.”

The documentary takes place in three acts: First, different soil savants describe dirt—this living mineral-biological matrix on which terrestrial life depends—in all its humble glory. Farmer and environmentalist Pierre Rabhi rhapsodizes over his soil. Oenophile Gary Vaynerchuk demonstrates his literal method of determining a grape’s terroir: he tastes the stuff. Next, narrator Jamie Lee Curtis takes us through the litany of abuses we heap on the soil: monoculture, deforestation, chemical nitration, and sterilization through pesticides and herbicides. This second act feels like Koyaanisqatsi with a voice-over. Finally, viewers are shown how they can make a difference and work in their own small ways to reverse the destruction being inflicted on the earth’s skin, and how fixing our broken planet can help people fix what’s broken in themselves. The third act, Laurie says, shows that “things are bad, but not hopeless. That was the message we hope to convey. We hope a lot of people will watch it, and say, ‘I can do something.’”


Well received at Sundance 2009, and shown on PBS’s Independent Lens series later that year, the movie is following the slow-burn market trajectory shared by a lot of modern documentaries. “Environmental documentaries take on a life that goes way beyond opening night at the multiplex,” Laurie says. “They generate continuing interest and momentum through word of mouth and social media.” And, she notes, the film is making a difference: “A lot of the people I’ve talked to have said, ‘The movie has changed my life.’ They’re composting, joining CSAs, just doing what they can to help.”

As with many classmates, Laurie’s career path has been neither straight nor narrow. After three years at Reed, she followed her boyfriend to Europe; their way to India by VW Squareback was delayed by a thrown connecting rod outside of Kabul. “I came back home to Scottsdale, Arizona, and my parents, for some reason, did not want to send me back [to Reed],” she recounted of her would-be thesis year. “‘We’re not paying for that anymore,’ they told me.”

After finishing her BA at Arizona State in Tempe, she found her way to Hollywood, eventually launching Movieline magazine, which she edited for six years. Dirt! The Movie, codirected and coproduced by her husband Bill Benenson, is her first feature, and she is credited as the executive producer, a title she describes as “honorary.” “Traditionally, [the executive producer is] the person who gets the funding, so I think I get the credit for saying ‘Fine, spend our money on this crazy movie.’”

Future projects include a documentary about women and makeup, Sacred Vanities, and a screenplay about the life of Rachel Carson. In the meantime, she can take pleasure in knowing that she’s proven that a dirty movie can change lives for the better.

—William Abernathy ’88

    Further Reading

  • Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth by Bill Logan. W. W. Norton, & Co., 2007.
  • Dirt! The Movie
reed magazine logoDecember 2010