Deep inside a large sandstone mountain located on a Norwegian island in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, a very cold and very well-protected vault waits for disaster to strike. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault—affectionately and appropriately called “Noah’s Ark” by some—is an ideal location for long-term seed storage, thanks to its cooling permafrost, a lack of tectonic movement, and a location far enough above sea level to keep it dry even if the ice caps melt. It gets the job done.
Late in Sandy McLeod’s documentary Seeds Of Time, Cary Fowler—a conservationist and one of the driving forces behind the creation of the vault—comments, in signature understated fashion, “Seed banks are rarely the sexiest thing to get funding for.” It’s hard to argue with that, but McLeod’s film and Fowler’s passion handily prove that it’s a perception that needs to be altered, and soon.
McLeod’s wide-ranging documentary finds its roots in Fowler, Seeds Of Time’s principal subject and main talking head. Fowler has dedicated his life to seed preservation, a remarkably changing field of study that has led to his involvement in issues relating to global warming, international politics, and extinction-level events. Saving seeds certainly sounds easy enough—even Fowler frequently recalls various points in his career when projects he expected to last mere months have now stretched into decades-long battles—but Fowler’s work is complex and ever-evolving.
Globe-trotting from Memphis to Rome, Peru to Norway, Seeds Of Time’s narrative moves quickly, serving as an effective and compelling introduction to the various issues associated with seed preservation. It’s all a little wonky, but McLeod’s feature effectively weaves together personal stories, compelling historical accounts, and an insider’s look at some of the world’s most fascinating hidden areas, like Svalbard. There are even moments of unexpected emotion, and Seeds Of Time packs more than a few surprising punches. (If you’ve never cried over the extinction of a strain of rice, Seeds Of Time may change that for you in a big way.)
Fowler is not a terribly charismatic subject, but the matter-of-fact manner in which he delivers important information and the stunning depth of his knowledge compensates, as does the steady way in which McLeod reveals pertinent personal details about his life and work. Fowler knows his stuff, and it’s clear that he wants to use his knowledge for good, while also educating as many people as possible. (At one point, he meets a budding seed fiend while talking to an elementary school class, and their entire exchange is just plain uplifting and sweet.)
The majority of the film is focused on the Svalbard vault and the work it helps accomplish, and it proves to be a wholly fascinating theme. The vault holds approximately 400,000 seed samples, copies of samples from other smaller, regional seed banks that have been sent all the way to Svalbard as part of a plan of so-called “safety duplication.” Although the world is dotted with hundreds of seed banks (known within the community as “genebanks”), Svalbard is tasked with holding these duplicates in case disaster or tragedy strikes its original bank. It’s the lynchpin of the seed-preservation community, and it’s a worthy anchor for the film.
Seeds Of Time neatly utilizes stunning nature photography, zippy animation, map-centric graphics, and stock footage to further clarify its subject matter, and the documentary skillfully imparts great gobs of information with relative ease. Not familiar with the interior of a seed bank? That’s going to change. Unsure about the politics that rule seed conservation? Seeds Of Time will clear that right up. Unclear about how important seed diversity is to the world? Seeds Of Time gives the audience more than enough to chew on.