Film Review: Eat White Dirt

July 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

Released: May 15, 2015; Documentary Short; Directed by Adam Forrester

A couple of words about Eat White Dirt before I jump into the review proper here: 1) EWD is a really (really) good film and 2) it is really (really) about eating white dirt. So 1) go see it and 2) don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I was initially convinced that the title had to be a euphemism or allusion to something I didn’t quite understand, but this movie is legit about geophagy. For the un-initiated (read: me), geophagy is the deliberate eating (and possibly craving) of earth, clay, or soil. The titular “dirt” is actually kaolin, or a clay mineral deposit, and – fun fact – the domestic kaolin industry makes one of its homes in Georgia as a belt of kaolin runs along the state, the result of an ancient fall line.

EWD covers the history of the kaolin source in Georgia, the uses of kaolin (paint, clay, and even as an active ingredient in Kaopectate), and the seemingly bizarre habit of snacking on it. Although, it appears that the snacking isn’t quite the oddity we’d like to think it is as its availability is widespread throughout the American South. Adam Forrester interviews four different women regarding their tastes for white dirt, and, via interview, he himself has indicated that it was hard to find folks willing to speak about their cravings on camera, despite white dirt’s popularity.

Visually, this short is a little piece of Southern-fried genius. It runs a little like an informational film on kaolin and displays projections of its more dated bits of footage prior to allowing them to fill the screen.

The film opens with a scene from Designing Women wherein Dixie Carter’s Julia Sugarbaker informs someone from the New York Times (incidentally, regarding an article about the dirt-eating predilections of Southerners) on the other end of her rotary phone that Southerners do not “eat dirt!” The scene is introduced on a television set in a small living space, a large pink chair to its right, a picture of a cat hanging on the wall above it. Space and place are really beautifully developed throughout this short. Prior to every new space, every new introduction, the viewer is allowed a series of shots of the area. And it never fails, dutifully we are gifted a shot of a playground, of shelves of china and tchotchkes, of the outside, snow-covered steps of college campuses. This film is fantastically backdropped by the eyes of someone who understands its place…and the importance of place in everyone’s lives and partialities.

There’s a bit of a collage quality to the film, in the form of quirky animations that accompany the more academic assessments of white dirt’s location, history, and nutritional value.

Sera Young, MA, PhD, from Cornell University’s Nutritional Sciences Division gives a proper breakdown on cravings for substances that are not foods. During her discussion of her initial research on maternal anemia (and her studies off the coast of Zanzibar which led to her fascination with pica, “an umbrella term for non-food cravings”), the viewer is treated to a hand-drawn map pin-pointing Zanzibar’s exact location. During her discussion of pica, itself, a breakdown of the types of non-food cravings are listed (and drawn) under a tiny umbrella labeled, “Pica.” Adorable.

An explanation of the geographic location of white dirt is accompanied by an animated map of the original continental break-down and fall line.

Stephen Hawks, a visual artist and lecturer at the University of Texas at Brownsville, walks through his first experience with white dirt as a young man on a tour of the Sandersville Kaolin Mine with his father and sister. He describes finding shark’s teeth (“this big,” accompanied by an animated shark’s tooth placed between the measurement of his fingers) in the mine, a reference to the original shoreline of the state.

Obviously, this has been one of my favorites thus far, and I encourage you to check it out at this year’s fest.

– Leah Gehlsen

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