It seems highly unlikely that you will take home everything there is to take home from the feature doc Common Ground on a first viewing. The latest effort from eco-filmmaking duo Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell (The Big Fix, Kiss the Ground), Common Ground is an alarming yet ultimately hopeful story of the pioneers of the "Regenerative Movement," those creating a new food system that produces tremendous quantities of nutritionally dense food while also balancing the climate, healing our bodies, and bringing back to life our ecosystem.
A follow-up to the acclaimed Kiss the Ground, Common Ground is a star-studded, at times to its detriment, and visually appealing film that also packs in an abundance of information making sure we understand how the combination of genetically modified crops, toxic pesticides, and a turn away from more natural farming methods have all worked together to destroy the vital carbon content of soil. America's chemical companies, Monsanto and parent company Bayer are called out among others, have resorted to protecting their bottom lines by any means necessary even at the cost of human life.
Common Ground had its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, the latest of multiple grand debuts for the Tickells. Common Ground opens exclusively on Friday, November 10th at AMC Northbrook followed by a screening event at Chicago's Music Box Theatre on Saturday, November 18th with the Tickells to be present.
Common Ground weaves together a tapestry of testimony and investigation throughout its 105-minute running time. Stories from those on the food movement front lines are engaging and often quite inspiring, though Common Ground also gets quite a bit of intensity from its deep and dark revelations of how racism has led to current unjust practices and how farmers of all colors are now trapped in a cycle where they are literally dying to feed us even as these corporations ensure they stay in debt and reliant on the cyclical nature of farm bills and incentives. These scenes are powerful throughout, perhaps the most powerful being the story of one particular farmer's death by suicide.
However, it must be noted that Common Ground is a mostly uplifting film emphasizing a growing movement of white, Black, and indigenous farmers who have found both farming and financial success using regenerative models of agriculture. These models are, at times in a relatively short period, showing signs of being able to balancethe climate, save our health, and stabilize the economy.
Common Ground is at its strongest when focusing on the farmers themselves, a deep and rich humanization of regenerative agriculture that inspires and educates. I'm less sold on the celebrity cameos and narrations, at times coming off as overly structured and manipulative and other times simply as a bunch of millionaires lecturing the rest of us on what we should be doing. A narrative device of having the celebs read a letter to the world's children is earnest yet mostly ineffective. That said, nearly everyone here is well known for their environmental conscience and the information's importance easily transcends a few quibbles.
The Tickells choose to focus their lens exclusively on the positive aspects of regenerative agriculture. Common Ground isn't here to debate but rather to wholeheartedly advocate for working for the earth instead of against it. Regenerative Agriculture is the way to make this happen. For those with advance knowledge of these ecological issues, Common Ground will likely resonate. For those, including myself, who are a bit less informed the film will likely trigger enough curiosity that you'll find yourself actively seeking even more information.
While not without its flaws, Common Ground is an engaging and educational feature doc that is also incredibly well timed. While the Tickells tackle complex subjects, they make it accessible and relatively easy to understand here. That's both frightening and exhilarating as we're forced to face our realities and the awesome possibilities.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic