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Common Ground Preaches to the Choir

Ian Somerhalder kissing the ground. Common Ground (2023)

Common Ground dares to be a clarion call to action. However, there’s a good chance its message may not make it out of the echo chamber. Despite some compelling testimonials as well as intriguing facts and figures, this environmental documentary seems destined to attract those who already agree with its message. That said, since it offers options for the future, Common Ground may yet reach the audience it needs.

This film comes from award-winning documentarians Josh and Rebecca Harrel Tickell. Common Ground seeks to explore the impact of large-scale farming on the environment as well as the potential for undoing any damage it’s done through regenerative farming methods. Through a series of montages, drone videos, and celebrity voice-overs, the documentary earnestly asks the audience to consider backing environmentally conscious initiatives which could save the planet. Besides testimonials from regenerative farmers, academics, and environmental advocates, numerous famous faces appear. Among those reading statistics and reciting dire warnings are Laura Dern, Jason Momoa, Rosario Dawson, and Donald Glover.

Josh and Rebecca Harell Tickell standing in a lush field holding handfuls of soil. Common Ground (2023).
Documentarians Josh and Rebecca Harell Tickell. Common Ground (2023).

Common Ground is less of a documentary and more of a sales pitch. It begins with the firm assertion the planet is dying and offers regenerative farming as the solution to numerous woes. If the proposals of the filmmakers are indeed credible, then this type of agriculture will extend human lifespans, cure global warming, and potentially help heal centuries old wounds inflicted by racism. It’s easy to see how audiences disinclined to hear the message may roll their eyes, but Common Ground does a good job of selling its position.

Those skeptical of the claims made are essentially presented with numerous positions to start their own research. At the same time, anyone inclined to accept regenerative farming practices or help in an activist capacity will find themselves better informed to take up the cause. While it may be hard to accept implications that organic food can cure Crohn’s disease or that the herbicide glyphosate is responsible for triggering a genetic affliction like ALS, dismissal without proper evidence isn’t skepticism, it’s bias. And many of the claims in Common Ground are visually demonstrable.

Soaring drone videos easily show farmland dying from typical agricultural practices. Clearly in contrast, vibrant fields, sometimes literally right next door, produced thanks to regenerative methods, allow audiences to see for themselves. In addition, the testimonials and displays of current advocates such as Leah Penniman, who can readily show their own success add weight to the claims of Common Ground. It’s just a shame there aren’t more of such moments.

Gabe Brown, a regenerative farmer, stands in a dying field in Common Ground (2023).
Gabe Brown, a regenerative farmer in Common Ground (2023).

Frequent montages tend to look like a composition of professional stock footage. There’s often a sense that certain scenes could have been composed by any content creator with a subscription to Shutterstock. It’s easy for attention to drift during these generic moments. At such times, Common Ground feels more like a podcast than a film as its strength then comes from the voice-overs.

Though that said, those can also be a little out of sorts. There’s something about Jason Momoa smoldering at the camera, or Rosario Dawson laughing happily right before they begin reciting lines about an impending environmental apocalypse that feels out of place. Too often celebrities sound like the world is dying but we’re going to have a good time talking about it, or they have the dower tone of people straining to read seriously.

Fortunately, celebrities take a backseat during the documentary’s truly tragic stories. On one hand, there is the historical record of racism, slavery, and genocide of indigenous peoples — the impact it all had on agriculture. Then there are accounts of contemporary farmers suffering. Told in their own words and backed up by various facts and figures, Common Ground paints a grim portrait of hardworking people spiraling into bleak circumstances. The economic woe driving some to suicide is terrible, but the Tickells believe the answer is regenerative farming.

Donald Glover looking bemused while sitting with a chicken and holding a sign for the movie Common Ground (2023).
Donald Glover in Common Ground (2023).

It’s the possible solutions which make Common Ground worth watching. The overall narrative is one heard time and time again (which says something in itself). Capitalist greed and corporate indifference combined with political power purchased by the almighty dollar have resulted in a complex web of misinformation and malignant practices poisoning the planet. Audiences have heard it in one regard or another so many times, Common Ground could almost risk skipping certain details, but it methodically lays out the situation before proposing solutions. Yet, these are the points where even supporters may tune out or skip ahead having heard it all before.

In a smart move, perhaps anticipating naysayers, the documentary crouches some initiatives in tempting terms. Essentially, regenerative farming could be worth millions. My main point being the filmmakers have anticipated opposition to their ideas from varying perspectives, resulting in segments during the close aimed outside the echo chamber. One could almost argue Common Ground doubles at times as a pitch to venture capitalists looking to back green initiatives.

Granted, a documentary about the impending demise of the planet may not be a typical Netflix and chill first round pick. However, anyone inclined towards environmental activism, especially those looking for some new way to contribute, would do well to view Common Ground. Celebrities lend their voices, though it’s hard to see what they really add other than famous faces. If that gimmick garners more attention, well done, but they add little except marketability to the movie. That said, word of mouth from the viewing audience might do even more.

Written by Jay Rohr

J. Rohr is a Chicago native with a taste for history and wandering the city at odd hours. In order to deal with the more corrosive aspects of everyday life he writes the blog and makes music in the band Beerfinger. His Twitter babble can be found @JackBlankHSH.

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