April 19, 2011

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox (2002)

 Dr. Bronner's Magic soap (tea tree oil) and their mint chapstick.

If you've ever bothered to look closely at the labels of Dr. Bronner's 100% organic bottled soaps, you've probably had to do a double take. They look great from a distance, solid-colored labels with words crammed every which way. But it's not just ingredients and company information written on them, they are honest-to-God rants and ramblings of Dr. Bronner himself.

For example:
"...Within 9 minutes you feel fresh and clean, saving 90% of your hot water & soap, ready to help teach the whole Human race the Moral ABC of All-One-God-Faith! For we're ALL-ONE OR NONE! ALL-ONE! ALL-ONE! ALL-ONE!"

"To dream that impossible dream! To reach that unreachable star! 'Til All-One, All-One we are! To fight that unbeatable foe! To go where the brave dare not to go!..."

So many questions arise when you look at the label, it makes sense that someone would attempt to have them answered, as Sara Lamm did in her 2002 documentary, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox. It's a genius idea -- you can't imagine the end result not being quirky. But as it turns out, there is much darkness in the real story.

The rundown: Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps were created by a man named Emanuel H. Bronner. Originally from Germany, where his parents owned a soap factory, the Jewish Bronner emigrated to the US in 1929. (His less fortunate parents were killed by the Nazis.) He embarked on a tour across the US, calling himself Dr. Bronner and preaching the "Moral ABC", a personal religion that has its basis in the idea that all the gods come from one origin (hence his favorite sentence closer, "All-one!"), and then freely adapted by Bronner throughout the years. During this time, he also phoned the FBI repeatedly to file complaints about Communists taking over, which led to a stint in the mental hospital in 1947. Upon his escape, he started making his famous all-natural peppermint soap, through which he further espoused the Moral ABC.

Dr. Bronner with his youngest son, his clear favorite.
It's a hell of a story, one that is relayed mostly through his heirs through interviews and older footage. The company is currently managed through his family, who honor him (he died in 1997 at the age of 89) by keeping his words on the labels. Some work directly for the company, while his oldest son goes around giving talks about his father and generously handing out free samples.

 A hippie-ish drawing for the soap, way back when.

For all the rich material, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox is a surprisingly timid film, refusing to put an angle on Bronner's controversial religious beliefs, or his role in the counterculture. The Moral ABC pops up incessantly throughout the film, but Lamm does not attempt to make any comment on it, essentially brushing them aside in the same way his family does. It's a curious rejection of an opportunity to understand how and why he came to believe in the All-One religion so fervently, and the relationship his family has with their father's religion. It's stated that they once ridiculed their father's beliefs, but looking at the direction the company has taken, it would seem that they have made a conscious effort to adopt his words in their own ways. We find in the closing credits that the company has incorporated environmentally friendly practices such as using 100% post-consumer recycled plastic, and has given away over 70% of its net profit. In addition they insist on fair trade and organic materials. Yet, there is no interest in elaborating why or how they came to make those decisons. Similarly, Bronner's role in hippie culture is explained, but not analyzed. (A more shrewd director would have positioned him as an early counterculture guru.)

Dr. Bronner getting his morning exercise by hanging on to a car.
The film's refusal to take a stance is most apparent in its portrayal of Bronner. In grainy 80's footage, where he talks with a heavy German accent about how to wash yourself using his soap, he can appear comical, and certainly, his family reminisces about him as if he were a mostly lovable kook. Yet, this is a man who would leave his kids to spend horrific stints in orphanages and foster homes while he took on the task of "uniting spaceship earth". As the film goes on, the religious rants become increasingly uncomfortable to listen to, both for their relentlessness and lack of actual insight.

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox
Incidentally, in Japan, Dr. Bronner's is fairly popular and can be found in major drugstores. The labels are the same as the US versions, except for a sticker in the back that states the major ingredients, its certification as an organic product, and that it can be used as a face soap, a body wash, and a makeup remover. No how's that for All-One?


Herryponting said...
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Jeremy_Kellerman said...

Do you happen to know the names of any stores/chains in Japan that sell Dr. Bronner's Cherry Blossom and Green Tea soaps?