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Common Ground

Josh and Rebecca Tickell’s documentary "Common Ground" explores regenerative agriculture as a proposed fix for what they call a “broken planetary system,” but is most of all like an unfortunate "SNL" parody of celebrity activism. "Common Ground" focuses too much solely on American agriculture and then uses big names like Laura Dern, Woody Harrelson, Rosario Dawson, and Jason Momoa to spout CliffsNotes versions of complex issues. 

The directors bookend the film with a heartfelt, but ultimately cheesy, montage of celebrities writing in a journal for future generations. The sequence ends with footage of a baby’s foot dappled by sunlight as Dern narrates, “Your life and the life of your children will depend on how you respond. This is a matter of life or death.” 

Hokey narrative framing aside, the film does little to share actions with viewers that they can take if they are so moved. In a world where people have little power to make real changes, it is ineffective to simply point out a corrupt system. This tension is, of course, not explored in the documentary. 

There is also a strange tension in "Common Ground"'s focus on how regenerative agriculture can save the planet while also highlighting the profit benefits of this practice. At the same time, the film explains that the industrialization of farming and the move away from traditional farming practices, especially those practiced by indigenous tribes across the land, happened because of the profit-driven capitalism of the nation’s early colonists. 

While it's admirable that "Common Ground" attempts to bring this history to light by featuring a few indigenous farmers, as well as ecological scholar Lyla June Johnston, the bulk of its on-camera subjects are white American farmers. A section that seeks to contextualize Dr. George Washington Carver’s contributions to farm science is packed with important historical information but is undercut by the film’s cheap-looking visual language, unsubtle needle drops, and hackneyed narration. 

The filmmakers often incorporate images of nature from around the globe—an elephant here, a cheetah there—but then focus solely on the systems in American industrial agriculture. Even then, the information is imparted in a paranoid, almost propaganda style. It only looks at certain aspects of the food system in America, and even then, does so on a level that is far too micro, ignoring the much larger macro level of how these systems affect everyday Americans. 

One section examines the paradox of the USDA labeling certain foods as bad to consume, like soy and corn-based snacks, while another branch of the same government is subsidizing those very crops. Here, it posits again that regenerative farms, which mostly do not receive government subsidies, would bring better food to grocery stores. However, "Common Ground" fails to further examine issues found within food distribution systems, like food deserts, which predominantly affect neighborhoods populated by people of color. As the doc spends time with these regenerative farmers, it never stops to consider whether these crops would make it to all Americans—let alone the rest of the world—should they become more readily available. 

This skewed perspective also finds itself in the film's visual language. In one of the most baffling choices for b-roll footage, as one of the celebrity narrators extolls how regenerative farming will not only help the planet's soil but make for “healthier humans,” we see footage of a blonde, white woman who looks like she’s at Coachella. That is this film’s platonic idea of a healthy human. 

“Common Ground” is a well-meaning PSA that waters down the complex history, practices, and systems of American industrial agriculture into something palatable for audiences looking to feel good about the bleak future of this dying planet without actually having to do any hard learning, thinking, or direct action. It trades in the idea that hope alone is enough to change the direction of the planet, putting the onus on individual choices rather than on any collective action to hold the government accountable. "Common Ground" is the film equivalent of an Instagram infographic stamped with an uplifting yet hollow platitude.

Now playing in select theaters. 

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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