Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein’s documentary No Impact Man follows writer Colin Beavan and his family as they embark on a yearlong experiment to make “no impact” on the environment — ie., eating locally grown food, using self-mechanized transportation, buying no new products, going without electricity, and installing solar panels to power their computers. A newly-converted environmentalist, Beavan receives a great deal of criticism for his experiment and is called to defend a project that many consider no more than a gimmick for his upcoming book.
The debate surrounding the Beavans, their motives, practices and respective roles in the environmental movement, provide the intellectual and emotional backbone for the film, forcing the audience to question their own lifestyle choices. Flavorpill spoke with co-director Justin Schein about the criticism levied against the Beavans, and how the No Impact Man project inspired him to make changes in his own life.
Flavorpill: What compelled you to make a film about Colin Beavan and his No Impact Man (NIM) project?
Justin Schein: Over the past decade I have become more and more interested in issues surrounding global warming, the urban environment, and what I could do to make positive changes in my life, and the lives of others. I read Elizabeth Royte’s wonderful book Garbage Land, about garbage in New York, and became obsessed with issues surrounding trash and recycling.
As a filmmaker, I was on the lookout for a film that might investigate these topics, but since the films I make are generally in the cinema verite style, I needed a story that was character driven. So when I learned from Laura that Colin and Michelle were about to start their “no impact” year, we jumped at the idea of exploring these issues from the perspective of a family.
FP: You knew the Beavans before they started their experiment. How dramatically did they change during their “no impact” year?
JS: I met Colin and Michelle through my co-director, Laura Gabbert. My wife, the co-producer of the film, Eden, and I had dinner with Colin and Michelle several years before they went “no impact.” Like us, they were progressive =-minded people who were living life in NYC. They were concerned about the environment, but stuck in old habits. If I remember correctly we ate at their house, which included ordering takeout and getting lots of plastic cartons delivered. That’s just the way people live in the city, working late, always in a rush — so you order in.
As Michelle points out in the film, Colin was already better suited for the experiment. He was vegetarian, a cook, a mediator, while she was much more enmeshed in consumer culture — occasionally eating fast food, taking taxis and wearing designer fashions.
The changes that occurred were as much in them as people as it was about their attitudes about the environment. In my opinion Michelle really brought to life the positive effects that living a more deliberate, less consumer-crazed life can have on one’s happiness. The slowing down of life clearly made her a happier, healthier person.
Colin changed in his whole view of the project. In the beginning it was about the minutia of changing your life. Things like trying to create no garbage can be maddening to say the least. As the experiment unfolded and he starting working with many lifelong environmental activists he really saw the importance of creating community over following every rule.
Lastly, and most importantly to the film, the project really impacted Colin and Michelle as people in a relationship. I feel like it helped them to appreciate one another and helped them to be better parents.
FP: The Beavans have received praise, and a good share of criticism for their project. What do you make of these diametric reactions?
JS: As filmmakers we were thrilled that the No Impact project generated strong reactions in people. It meant that it was touching a nerve. Colin was being criticized and praised from both the left and the right. The challenge as a storyteller was to incorporate the criticism into the film in an organic way. We were very lucky that Colin’s mentor in the community garden Mayer Vishner, a life long activist, became a friend who could critique the project from within. Mayer’s analysis was an important moment in the film.
FP: How have your beliefs and practices shifted since you started working on this project?
JS: 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… we used cloth diapers on our son, I line dry my laundry as much as possible, we compost. It is not that hard to reduce your impact 50% by just making active decisions. It is the other 50% that is very tough and that is where we need the government, business and institutions to help build an infrastructure that can facilitate change. But once you start changing your own life it is much easier to raise your voice for political/social change.
FP: What do you want people to take away from this film?
JS: It is so easy to just move through life without examining the impact of the decisions we make. We are clearly in a global environmental emergency and we need to wake up and start asking ourselves tough questions. Do we need to live in a disposable culture and does that make us happier? The answers may not be easy but if we don’t start asking the questions we will never make any progress.
Our hope is that the No Impact Man documentary will create a forum for people to start talking about and thinking about these issues.
No Impact Man opens in theaters on September 11. Colin Beavan’s book, No Impact Man, is in stores September 8. New Yorkers: Leave a comment on this post to enter for a chance to win tickets for you and two friends to check out the film.