On Thursday we’ll be hosting the Brooklyn premiere of No Impact Man at the Bell House. The documentary follows one family in New York who spent a year trying to reduce their environmental impact down to nothing. Colin Beavan, his wife Michelle Conlin, and their young daughter gave up coffee, sugar, non-local food, new clothes, non-human-powered transportation, even electricity. We asked Justin Schein, the film’s co-director, to dish on what it was like following the family over the course of a year.
How did this project come about?
My co-director Laura Gabbert is a longtime friend of Michelle, No Impact Man‘s wife. About week before Colin and Michelle were to begin their year-long experiment, Eden (our producer), Laura and I had dinner with Michelle. She told us about the adventure that she and Colin were about to undertake and we decided that it needed to be documented. The next step was to convince Colin, and he needed some convincing.
Did making a film about having no impact on the environment have, well, an impact? I mean, film equipment, lighting, etc., are all pretty impact-y. Did you change any of your usual shooting habits to reflect that?
Colin only agreed to make the film only if we would try to make it in the most sustainable way possible. So we used no lights, no cars, and we did not buy any new equipment in the making of the film.
All of the shoots of them biking were taken from another bike…so if this filmmaking gig doesn’t work out I might have a job in the circus, riding a bike and holding a camera.
Did you change your lifestyle at all during or after this experience, in response to what you saw?
There is no way you could spend the year documenting the NIM project and not reflect on every aspect of your own life. There are many things that changed in my life from that year… during which my wife and I had a son and we used cloth diapers for him instead of disposables, I line-dry my laundry as much as possible rather than use a gas dryer, we compost our food scraps now. We found that it is not that hard to reduce a substantial part of your impact by just making active decisions. It is the other percentage that is very tough and that is where we need the government, business and institutions to help build an infrastructure that can facilitate change. Also, once you start changing your own life it feels much more natural to raise your voice for political/social change.
Did you find his single-mindedness at all irritating? Did you drink coffee in front of Michelle?
One of the things that was so great about Colin and Michelle was the way they interacted as a team on screen. Often Colin was the straight-man to Michelle’s humor. And particularly at first Colin was very focused on the rules and Michelle’s following them which could be perceived as irritating. He put himself under a lot of stress and the media attention made it worse. As the year went on he really learned to let go.
I tried not to taunt Michelle with coffee, just as I always took the stairs with them, and had my limo pick me up around the corner.
What was the one thing they gave up that seemed the hardest to you?
The hardest thing for me to give up would have to be sugar (which is not grown locally). Also consumption in general, not buying anything new, would be hard to give up. I think our society has taught me to use shopping as a kind of emotional crutch.
What are you working on now?
As a documentary filmmaker you have to have several projects in the air at once. I am shooting Upside-down and Backwards, a hybrid documentary and animated film about dyslexia with Academy Award-winning producer Peggy Stern. I am also working on a film about Palestinian and Israeli teenage girls that we have been filming for seven years now.
Lastly I am shooting a portrait of Mayer Vishner, the community farmer in No Impact Man. He is a lifelong activist, an original Yippie and colleague of Abbie Hoffman, who is battling his demons.
Schein and No Impact Man’s producer Eden Wurmfeld will be on hand to answer questions after the film this Thursday, September 10. Doors at 7, local beer open bar with snacks from Sweet Deliverance at 7 pm, film at 8 pm, $18 advance, $20 at the door. Tickets here.
Sent by Annaliese. Photos courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.