‘Common Ground’ Review: An Environmental Documentary That Misses the Point

Tribeca 2023: “Kiss the Ground” filmmakers Josh and Rebecca Tickell return with a film about regenerative agriculture

"Common Ground"
"Common Ground" (CREDIT: Elfe Cimicata)

A documentary extolling the virtues of regenerative agriculture, “Common Ground” gets its world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, where it is also claiming a Human/Nature Award.

What is regenerative agriculture, you ask? It’s a mix of Indigenous and modern farming practices that abides by four principles: no tillage, no chemicals, cover crops and use of herd grazing.

Industrialization post WWII popularized the use of machinery, pesticides and herbicides in agriculture as, per the film, suppliers of tanks and chemical weapons looked to pivot to a steadier business model. It goes on to explain the agrichemical industry’s overwhelming pull on politicians and researchers at land-grant universities.

Per Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.), the public is paying multiple times: in subsidies, food assistance and Medicaid costs. Farm Bill provisions mandate what to grow. Farmers incur massive debt purchasing pesticides and the seeds genetically modified to withstand them. Monsanto’s Roundup is widely known to be carcinogenic while Bayer, the company’s corporate parent since 2018, manufactures cancer drugs. By adopting regenerative farming techniques, farmers and the country can potentially save billions.

The film features a few startling side-by-side comparisons of fertile regenerative parcels of farmland right next to barren industrial farm tracts obliterated by erosion. One naturally wonders if these neighboring farmers are on speaking terms and, if so, why the industrial farmer hasn’t converted. Unfortunately, you won’t find the answers here.

It is exceptionally good at bullet-pointing the key information dispersed by its interviewees so that viewers can easily retain everything. There are certainly some eye-opening revelations, such as former F.D.A. advisor Urvashi Rangan surfacing that plant-based meats are actually ultra-processed products that can include G.M.O.s and chemicals in their manufacturing process.

The press notes describe the film as a follow-up to the Tickells’ own 2020 documentary, “Kiss the Ground” – a previous Tribeca Festival selection that’s currently streaming on Netflix – but it feels like more of a retread, covering some of its predecessor’s same themes and including many of the same interviewees.

What immediately jumps out is the celebrity endorsement factor. The film boasts Laura Dern, Rosario Dawson, Jason Momoa, Donald Glover, Woody Harrelson, and Ian Somerhalder in its star-studded roster. While narrators usually remain unseen in documentaries that employ them, “Common Ground” trails them inside the recording booth. We see Momoa speaking and winking directly at the camera – which Harrelson also did in “Kiss the Ground.”

In fact, Harrelson isn’t the only returnee: Dawson, Somerhalder, rancher Gabe Brown, Ray Archuleta, formerly of U.S.D.A., and Mark Hyman of UltraWellness Center all appeared in the predecessor. Some of the motion graphics here, such as the carbon dioxide bubbles, also seem identical to ones from “Kiss the Ground.”

“Common Ground” often resembles an instructional video rather than a documentary, including some of what feels like stock footage as opposed to archival, like the kind supplied by Getty Images and its ilk. There are also scenes that feel as if they are staged, such as a group of school kids holding up protest signs and celebrities composing letters to their children.

Some of its use of music and imagery – such as trotting out generic and clichéd headdress, drums and teepees to illustrate a segment having to do with Indigenous Americans – is about as reductive and as culturally insensitive as the reality TV series “Survivor.” It cues up Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” in the segment about the agrichemical lobby. The Cinematic Orchestra’s “To Build a Home” accompanies the home video of a farmer who committed suicide.

Even if you agree with the film’s political lean, it’s hard to overlook the unorthodoxy. “Common Ground” smacks of propaganda masquerading as documentary. If such can qualify as documentary, then so should reality TV.