The Daily Green recently attended screenings of No Impact Man, the new movie, based on the blog that resulted in the book No Impact Man, which is all about author Colin Beavan's decision to try to have his family live for one year with a minimal impact on the environment.
I was pleasantly surprised by the No Impact Man film. Of course I had been familiar with Colin Beavan's blog, and I even met him briefly a time or two. But I thought the movie gave a thoughtful, enlightening look into his small family's sincere attempt to live greener.
In fact questions of Beavan's sincerity and motivations have dogged his project from the beginning, particularly among the skeptically inclined New York media establishment. It's easy to try to dismiss Colin's year of living dangerously green as a gimmick, as a ploy for a book and film. Yet what comes across on screen is a truly dedicated, passionate guy who is really seeking for ways to live better.
Although Beavan is unabashed about his liberal leaning tendencies, he approaches sustainability one step at a time, with a sincere desire to learn from each small experience, whether that's planting in an urban garden (right around the corner from where I used to live -- who knew?), biking around town, eschewing elevators and packaging and so on. In this he is like the best of Michael Moore, when the famous agitator is asking questions rather than shouting someone down.
"In the end, we'll decide what we want to keep," Colin said toward the start of the film, as he reassured his neurotic wife about how their changes, sometimes radical, would pan out. Colin's wife Michelle serves as an amusing counterpart to his earnest downhomeness, with her $975 boots, iced coffee addiction and aversion to nature. "Honey, I'm not into them at all," she warns of the vermicomposting bin he brings home one day.
But Michelle does come around time and again, admitting that she liked the bikes and spending more time together. Interestingly, she found that "the food is the hardest part ... because I can't eat anything that tastes good." It seems that there's a bit of a revolution fomenting these days when it comes to our stomachs, with Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Food Inc. and others on the front lines against global agribusiness. The Beavans stuck to eating foods that were sourced within 250 miles of their Greenwich Village home. All year long. It wasn't easy, but they lost weight, got healthier and rediscovered the joys of cooking. (Though they sometimes did get tired of porridge.)
One of the interesting aspects of the experiment is that what seems to be most important is the spirit of sustainability, rather than some rigid rules. For instance, Colin finds a way to keep connected even after his electricity is shut off, by borrowing a solar panel. He takes a ride on a train (motorized transport!) because he thinks a visit to a local farm will enrich his life.
In any case, the focus on the spirit rather than the exact changes rang true to me. It also reminded me of the attitude of the Amish in the excellent 2002 documentary Devil's Playground. The Amish eschew certain technologies not because of a rigid adherence to any particular time frame, but rather they evaluate each change in terms of how it might affect their families. That's why they will accept a ride to a hospital if they are ill, but don't like the way car culture pushes families apart.
At points in the film I wanted to get more information about the changes the Beavan clan was making, and about how big changes do really add up. I wanted to see infographics and statistics flash across the screen. But by the end of the film I changed my mind. I decided that the minimalist, low-fi camera work and lack of fancy splash screens and graphics played to the movie's subject perfectly. Although this is a savvy, successful Manhattan couple, they are trying to find more simplicity in their lives, more meaning. There have been plenty of opportunities for people to get the facts on the environment, but too few are reacting with their hearts.
Several times Colin fretted that he wasn't going to make much of a difference, that people would shrug off his experiment, and that one person is too small to make a difference. Yet one of the strengths of his project is that people can see that they don't have to try to be perfect. We all really can make changes that add up, and we can find the solutions that work for us. We can keep the changes that work and discard the ones that don't.
Brian is a Web Editor at The Daily Green.
With all the movies out there, including several others about the environment, why did we all attend this movie? For one, the concept is interesting and thought-provoking. Bigger, though, probably: This movie has been effectively hyped. We got about a zillion invitations from multiple PR reps to see one of about 100 screenings in New York City in the weeks leading up to the movie's opening Sept. 11. The whole endeavor has been criticized in some quarters as a publicity stunt for Beavan to sell books and get a movie deal, but in general I don't particularly mind effective marketing with an environmental message. So, we went, we saw, and now we review.
The hype is actually one of my favorite parts of the movie. People might actually go to see this -- people who don't particularly care about lowering their impact. It's like a thoughtful 92-minute reality TV show. (And the main character is Beavan's wife, Michelle, who endures all the changes with a fraction of the initial commitment her husband brings to the project; the filmmakers were smart enough to see that her transformation and struggles are more interesting than a committed liberal's experiment.) If you like watching people go through odd experiments and endure personal relationship drama with cameras running, as American audiences clearly do, then this movie is for you. If you care about the environment and want to challenge your notions of what it means to live an environmentally friendly lifestyle, this is also the movie for you. I spend every workday thinking about the environment, and I came out with a lot to think about: "How committed am I really? Is there more I can do? Isn't time I stopped wasting all those take-out containers?" No matter who discusses this movie after watching it, in the spaces between jokes about forgoing toilet paper and an electrified refrigerator, it's bound to provoke conversation about out relationship with consumer society and the environment.
I'll say it: I think Beavan should provoke yet more ire at his marketing prowess and turn No Impact Man into a reality TV show. (Maybe Starbucks, the purveyor of the product Michelle has the most trouble giving up, would sponsor it.)
The other thing I loved about this movie was a point it didn't make explicitly. The couple's young daughter, Isabella, appears to be totally unaffected by the experiment. At the beginning of the movie, she's barely verbal, and by the end, she's beginning to form sentences. She seems not to suffer from reusable cloth diapers, six months without electricity or locally derived homemade food. She's just a kid, who, if anything, takes joy in washing the family's clothes with their feet in the bathtub and spending more summer evenings with mom and dad outside in the park. Lifestyle changes for adults are hard, the movie shows. For kids, they aren't changes at all. That gives me more hope than anything else that we can, as a society, live more sustainably without being any less happy.
Dan is the Senior Web Editor of The Daily Green.
Having not read the book and knowing little about the project, I was interested to see the movie. While overall pretty entertaining, it left me with more questions than it answered. Why did they still use their gas stove? Why did they phase so many elements of this supposedly year-long project in gradually, instead of all at the beginning? How could they go without a refrigerator, especially with a toddler?
As much as these unanswered questions annoyed me, they did play an important role in maintaining the integrity of the film. The plot is filled with untied loose ends, uncomfortably personal family moments, scenes that could have used a second take, and finished off with a fairy-tale ending gone terribly awry. But all these elements come together to make it feel like a sneak peek into some crazy lifestyle that no one ever intended to be a movie.
I especially like the way Colin Beavan responds to his critics within the film as he reads their accounts of his project. It gives him an opportunity to defend what he is doing, and his motives for doing it, and it also helped me to understand his goals for the project more clearly. Also, I kind of like to think that he may be reading my own words about him, although I don't have nearly as nasty things to say about him as others.
Overall, I liked the movie - imperfections and all - and would recommend it both for its entertainment value and environmental message.
Elizabeth was *sniff* one of The Daily Green's summer interns.
No Impact Man, the movie, opens with Colin Beavan (No Impact Man himself) introduced by hilarious fake news anchor Steven Colbert on The Colbert Report. Beavan is being interviewed about the year-long quest that he, along with his wife Michelle and his daughter Isabella, has undertaken to live environmentally consciously. Living environmentally consciously includes going without cars, subways, television and eventually toilet paper. According to Colbert the project is "like Gillian's Island, only completely implausible." The stage is set for this documentary: It's not just about No Impact Man's project, it's about the reactions and the humor that goes along with it.
For the most part the film lives up to this stage it sets. More and more documentaries deal with the reactions from the public and the media regarding their project during the actual filming of the documentary (think Michael Moore). Unfortunately this can lead subjects to become hyper-conscious of setting the scene and creating a story arc for the film. For example, the film struggles to find the conclusion, briefly having Colin state the numerous successes of the project, "what if we called it the year we didn't watch TV and became better parents as a result?" The film also tries to wrap things up by having Michelle state what she liked about the project (she liked the bike and the farmers' market). But these seem forced. Whereas the great accomplishment of the project is clearly displayed by Isabella's reaction. She is blissfully unaware of the cameras and relishing in the family's new life (worms! dirt! gardening! not to mention the extra attention and family time).
The film loses steam when the characters become self-aware and when the film veers off topic. The film goes into what Colin describes as "reality-show" territory when the couple struggles with issues of wanting a second child. The film is at its strongest when it focuses on the daily struggles of the project and the how the couple deals with them. (You can imagine Michelle's reaction to being deprived of toilet paper.) In some ways Colin's quest to go "no impact" is just like any early midlife crisis. Colin doesn't buy a Porsche, he becomes aware of his effect on the earth, decides to make a major life change and takes his wife with him on the ride (and he decides to write a book and document the crisis, but you get the idea). Michelle is skeptical, but supportive, as any spouse might be during a time of change. It's this relatable predicament that I think will resonate with a wider audience than other environmental films. I imagine that while the audience is laughing and connecting to the "No Impact Couple," the film can introduce Colin's environmentally minded message in an approachable way.
Gloria is a Web and Photo Editor at The Daily Green.
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