Red Soil (2020) is one of those old-fashioned dramas about a whistleblower who is caught between the community that they grew up in and an outside world that isn’t aware of the wrongdoings that occur within the whistleblower’s segment of society. It is mounted with the usual touches of pomposity and insistence upon its own importance, but it eventually settles down and becomes something far less showy. This ends up being both an asset and a flaw. Viewers expecting something that explores new territory will feel as though they have been let down. Audiences who want to see more of the same old formula, are not likely to have many complaints. 

Farid Bentoumi, Samuel Doux and Audrey Fouché choose to tell this story from the viewpoint of Nour (Zita Hanrot), a young French nurse who returns home after experiencing a tragedy at her workplace. Her father Slimane (Sami Bouajila) is able to secure her a position as an on-site medical professional at his workplace. He is employed at a chemical plant and his fellow workers greatly admire him as somebody who has fought for their rights. He and his daughter are very close, but they begin to grow apart when she takes issue with some of the dodgy workplace practices that he condones. He pushes back against the idea of an outside investigation of the chemical plant, while his daughter believes that it is absolutely necessary. She contacts Emma (Céline Sallette), a journalist who could help to publicise some of the crimes that are being committed at the chemical plant.

Most of the film’s flaws seem to be tied to the script in some way or another. Its attempts to moralise and make an argument in favour of strictly enforcing health and safety standards at chemical plants, are severely hampered by the fact that we never really get to understand the other side of the argument. It’s not that one expects them not to take a side in this debate – it’s just that their argument would be strengthened if they took into account the complex factors that cause ordinary people to put so many lives at risk. 

Instead of fully grappling with issues like job shortages and pressure to financially provide for family members, they turn the workers at the chemical plant into villainous figures who could easily be doing something better with their lives. We are told that the workers at the chemical plant could also get jobs at a local supermarket, where they would presumably be working in a far less toxic environment. There seem to be no serious consequences for taking on a less dangerous job and we never understand why the workers wouldn’t be pursuing careers in fields where they wouldn’t be facing moral dilemmas every day. There doesn’t seem to be much grey area in the world that the screenwriters have imagined, and this makes it difficult to fully comprehend the horror of several family men choosing to poison drinking water in an effort to keep their jobs. 

They seem to shift their focus onto a more complex issue when Emma is introduced into the story. Journalists are frequently accused of exploiting their sources and taking an ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ approach to framing the stories that they tell. In the modern world, journalists are desperate to get clicks and that does tend to lead to more sensationalism and less fair and balanced reporting. Emma is presented as one of the many freelance journalists who struggles to earn a living in this vicious, dog eat dog profession. For once, she isn’t immediately painted as good or bad, and the motivations behind her decision to write about corrupt practices at the chemical plant seem morally ambiguous. She is self righteous and condescending when speaking to the working class employees at the chemical plant and so we have reason to distrust her. Her character arc isn’t tied up too neatly and maintains an air of mystery. Most of this can be credited to Sallette, who has an edgy, unpredictable presence. She excels at playing women who are uncomfortable in their own skin, and she pops off the screen here. There are times when her liveliness is enough to make the on-screen drama feel urgent and serious. 

Even when the actors excel, it is difficult to overlook the fact that this is virtually indistinguishable from dozens of other dramas that tell the stories of brave whistleblowers. Farid Bentoumi’s direction is workmanlike and it never feels like he brings a new perspective to telling an oft-told tale. He is never able to build up an atmosphere or believably establish the setting. It is shocking to notice that we never really see the titular red soil before the closing credits roll. So much of Nour’s close relationship with her family members is tied to the small, tight-knit community that she grew up in. Slimane frequently tells her that their town is a cosy, friendly place in which everyone is accepted, but we are never really shown anything to support this idea. There’s a lot of telling going on, when this could have used a bit more showing. 

It is difficult to take issue with a film like Red Soil. Everybody making it probably had the best intentions, and it won’t end up having a negative impact on anybody. If a couple of people see it, and it ends up turning them into environmental activists, that could creative some positive change in the world. At the same time, it is difficult to view this as a successful piece of filmmaking. It doesn’t do enough to differentiate itself from Erin Brockovich (2000) and Dark Waters (2019) and it is never very engaging. It feels like the sort of educational video that disgruntled teenagers are forced to watch in their social studies class, rather than breaking any new ground. How disappointing it is to see Sallette wasted on something so generic. 

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Signature Entertainment presents Red Soil on Digital Platforms 16 August, 2021