Troy Hale has heard all the jokes — and made all the jokes himself.
A good sense of humor is a requirement when you’re a filmmaker whose latest documentary chronicles the impact of human and animal excrement on the planet.
Hale, who teaches at Michigan State University, mixes comedy and science in “Sh*t Saves The World,” which arrived in early July on Amazon, iTunes and other streaming platforms.
Its poster playfully calls it “the #2 documentary on the planet.”
In the film, Hale gives viewers a mix of history, biology and fun facts about — to use the popular slang — poop, along with some serious information about health and environmental issues surrounding it.
But this isn’t an ominous look at the state of Earth. After seeing the movie, you might feel encouraged by the potential — documented by Hale through several examples — for turning waste into renewable energy and resources.
Hale began telling stories visually as a TV journalist, covering everything from weather disasters to the MTV Video Music Awards for news stations in cities like Miami, Minneapolis, Memphis and Columbus, Ohio.
Around 2008, he was hired by MSU, where he is a professor of practice focused on journalism and film. Over the years, he has made many short documentaries on subjects such as global trade, race in America, human organ trafficking in Bangladesh and the mystery of missing moon rocks from Apollo-era space missions.
Then Hale, who has accumulated numerous local Emmys and other awards, felt like trying something new. “I just decided one day to say, ‘Why don’t I do something fun for a change?’” he says.
In 2016, Hale released his first commercial film, “Fart: A Documentary,” a lighthearted, fact-filled look at flatulence. Hale says it was a topic that allowed him to tell a story in an interesting way while grabbing the attention of film distributors.
Now comes his second documentary feature themed to a bodily function. It has been released in the United States by Gravitas Ventures and has also been sold to six other markets in eight countries.
Last year, MSU had a key role in “Don’t Look Up,” a bleak satire that starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as MSU astronomers desperately trying to spread the word about an apocalyptic comet (a metaphor for climate change).
In contrast, Hale’s film is optimistic about workable solutions to an environmental problem. For its tone, he says he drew inspiration from how Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” draws viewers into the news in ways that don’t feel like homework.
“The humor aspect of things, I think, helps get points across. …The fact that you can watch the film and laugh a little bit allows you to have access to that subject matter. I think that’s really important.”
For instance, it might be hard to convince someone to watch a film about anaerobic digesters, but in the documentary, Hale explores the technology behind the one that an MSU researcher helped the Detroit Zoo build around 2016.
Basically, anaerobic digesters involve using microorganisms to break down biodegradable material like manure and food waste and turn it into poo power. According to Detroit Zoo manager of sustainability Andy McDowell, anaerobic digestion “is a key part of any regional renewable strategy.”
As McDowell explains via email, the Detroit Zoo’s anaerobic digester feeds microorganisms “manure from our herbivores and pre-consumer food waste to yield biogas which is used to generate electricity. Without our system to capture and use the methane, this would all be released to the atmosphere.”
Says McDowell: “Nature knows no waste. Waste from one species becomes food for another. Our future depends on our ability to learn from nature and apply her lessons to support human systems while conserving habitats. Anaerobic digestion is a perfect example.”
It’s interesting and complex stuff, but Hale says he knew he could make it digestible (pun intended) for audiences after he interviewed Dana Kirk, the MSU assistant professor in biosystems and agricultural engineering who worked on the zoo’s anaerobic digester (which was the first of its kind at the US zoo).
“When I was there, we were joking around. We were shooting the sh–,” says Hale. “I (could) see that this Ph.D. that is very serious about his work and a researcher and all that kind of stuff, he could laugh at the topic.”
“Sh*t Saves The World” is dotted with information like the fact that the average human produces about 320 pounds of solid waste per year for a rough lifetime total of 25,000 pounds. Earth, home to a population of about 8 billion people and some 8.7 million species, essentially serves as a place to put all of that … well, you get the idea.
Along with some bathroom levity and brief history lessons in ancient Rome’s innovative sewers and the Great Stink of 1858 in London (don’t ask), Hale offers information on problems that need to be addressed. He notes, for example, that almost 60% of the world’s population can’t safely get rid of waste.
In one segment, he chronicles environmental protests at the United States-Mexico border over sewage that is getting into waterways and devastating some beaches. One of the protest signs reads “Stop the poop.”
Yet Hale’s ultimate focus is how waste is being recycled and reused through various strategies. There’s a segment on people who are turning elephant manure into paper. Another segment follows nature’s cleaning crew, dung beetles, who feed on feces.
Says Hale, ”It’s so encouraging and every one of those people I talk to, they’re getting water out of sewage, they’re pulling precious metals out of it, they’re turning it into electricity. … (It’s) the good feeling that ‘Hey, there’s something we can do about this.'”
Of course, for every discussion of responsible waste management, there’s also a segment on something like the technology that lets astronauts go to the bathroom in their space suits.
With his “Fart” documentary, says Hale, “I got a lot of, ‘Hey, we all watched as a family and my grandfather was cracking up and my grandchild was cracking up’. I really enjoyed that kind of feel to it. I’m getting a little bit of that feel to this (movie) so far, although it’s only been out three weeks or so.”
Hale began work on the poo-themed project in 2017 in his spare hours from his full-time job as a professor. He says he funded the project himself, even shooting some footage in Tanzania during a family vacation.
Former student Zoe Kissel edited the documentary and was a producer. Her brother, Dylan Kissel, was the music editor. A couple of students helped with some early filming.
Hale is reaching out to clean water and clean energy groups and zoos to help spread the word on his documentary. Already, the World Toilet Organization, a nonprofit dedicated to improving toilet and sanitation conditions across the globe, has reached out to him.
One possible tie-in for the film could be the upcoming World Toilet Day on Nov. 19. The event draws attention to the global sanitation movement.
Promoting the film isn’t always easy for Hale. “The problem that I’ve had is I was on the radio and I can’t say the word. I tried to put a Facebook ad together. They won’t allow it.”
Podcasts, however, are a different story. “They don’t have to deal with FCC rules, so we can say it as many times as we want,” notes Hale.
One more question: Will Hale’s next project have any connection to, say, bidets or bathrooms?
“No,” he says amiably. “I joke with people because they say, ‘When is ‘Fart 2’ coming out? … I think I need to switch topics for a film. I think I need to move on to something else.”
Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at email@example.com.
how to watch
For details on streaming options, go to the film’s website, https://shitsavestheworld.com.