Sundance documentary chronicles one family’s effort to erase their footprint on the planet
January 13, 2009
Is it possible for a family of three living in a Manhattan apartment to live in harmony with the environment, to reduce their trash output to zero, consume only locally grown foods and exist without electricity, cars or even an elevator?
And, what would you do if your spouse wanted to get rid of the TV, eschew restaurants and throw out your cosmetics? Would you be willing to spend a year without reality shows, without Starbucks and without a washing machine?
That is the proposition author Colin Beavan made to his wife. Surprisingly, Michelle, a Business Week reporter and self-admitted Reality TV addict agreed. With rolled eyes, a few heavy sighs and a lot of love she signed off on a one-year experiment to join "No Impact Man" on his quest to write a book about living on the extreme edge of environmentalism.
She also suggested that they call her grade-school friend and accomplished filmmaker Laura Gabbert to document their progress on film. Gabbert was game and invited Justin Schein to be her co-director.
There were a few conditions though. Beavan insisted that the filmmakers try to be as eco-conscious as possible too. No lighting equipment, no new cameras, no cars. The filmmakers rented a rickshaw to shoot the couple bicycling to the market and used only four rechargeable batteries to power their microphones during the year.
Most of the project was filmed in the Beavans’ 750 square foot apartment, a set made even more intimate as the couple gave up various comforts of modern life. As their efforts to reduce consumption and waste ramped up the family gave away their flat screen television, tossed out all of their chemically based cleaning products and cosmetics and tried to buy only locally grown and not-prepackaged groceries.
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Gabbert and Shein, with full cooperation from their subjects, manage to portray the couples’ struggles and accomplishments with both empathy and healthy skepticism. They capture Michelle rolling her eyes as Colin boxes up her make up and they train the camera on the flies buzzing around Colin’s compost box. They catch Michelle "cheating" as she caves in to her Starbucks craving and they don’t turn away when Colin sinks onto the couch in a moment of deep self doubt.
"While we have great respect for the no-impact project we wanted to make a film about what this family was going through, we knew there had to be some perspective," Shein explained.
According to Gabbert, "This is as much a portrait of a marriage as it is an environmental film it was exciting to see how they grew as a couple and grew as a family."
Indeed, the little triumphs shine through. Michelle comes home to find Colin and Isabella, their two year old daughter, squishing laundry in the bathtub with their feet and her look of horror dissolves into laughter as she joins them. There are also several candlelit scenes when the Beavans finally achieve the simpler life they are looking for free of TV and technology.
Those moments of tranquility, though, are counterbalanced by an unexpected wave of publicity generated by Colin’s blog. Midway through the year, The New York Times ran a story about Colin’s no-impact project which also piqued the interest of local talk shows.
According to Gabbert, "dealing with that much press and publicity was destructive in a way they felt very exposed. Colin, particularly, felt the media had trivialized the project."
Ultimately Gabbert and Shein’s film leaves it up to the audience to decide whether the Beavans’ conservation efforts add up to a stunt or a genuine effort to walk the green talk.
"These people spent a year testing themselves," says Shein who says the experience influenced him to use cloth diapers when his own child was born.
"Colin says it is pretty easy to do about 75 percent of what they did, it’s just the last part that is really, really hard. And some of these changes can actually make you feel better. It is not necessarily a monastic sacrifice," adds Gabbert.
The two filmmakers along with Michelle and Colin Beavans will reunite during the festival where Shein hopes the film will "be a jumping off point to bring this discussion to the public."
If audiences go home thinking about how to reduce their consumption just a little bit, "No Impact Man" will have made his mark.