How much impact can you make through a year of no impact? Colin Beavan and his wife Michelle Conlin decided to do their best to minimize their impact on the environment and as if that was not enough of a challenge, they did it the hard way, in New York City, with Isabella, their two-year-old daughter. And exposed to withering scorn from readers of the blog documenting the effort and a New York Times article that seemed to reduced the entire project to the toilet paper question. And they did it all in front of a camera.
It was a stunt, sure, but more than that a statement about what is possible and what, in the most profound and global sense, is necessary. And more than a statement, it is a series of questions, starting with this one: what do we really need and how much does it really cost?
I spoke to director/cinematographer Justin Schein about what it was like to follow this family for a year.
NM: What steps did you and the crew take to reduce the environmental impact of the film-making?
JS: Colin made us promise that we had to do it in as sustainable way as possible, so even before we picked up the camera, we were challenged to do that, everything from not buying a new camera, to no lights, no cars. All the bicycle footage was shot from another bicycle, a newly developed skill I have. Most documentaries have a much smaller footprint than fiction film-making but there’s always another step you can make, and that’s at the heart of this project. You have to ask yourself these questions. It is pretty easy to be stuck in a habit, and making this film carried over into my home life. You can’t spend a year with these guys without asking yourself about the food you’re eating and the garbage you’re creating. We started composting, we use cloth diapers, things like that.
NM: How do you draw the line between what is meaningful and what is going too far for too little benefit?
JS: Part of the process and the arc for Colin was about letting go of the rules a little bit and seeing that yes these individual actions are important but there is a bigger picture. For Michelle it was a different arc, learning that she wasn’t happy living the way she was living.
NM: Yes, she goes from someone who describes herself as addicted to reality television to someone who at the end of the year does not want the television back in the apartment.
JS: It was very clear to me that she really appreciated the benefits of not having the TV, in terms of being a mother, their parenting was dramatically impacted by the closeness that this brought to their family. That was an unintended benefit but it will be the lasting benefit. The time they spent together, eating and cooking, getting out of the house because they didn’t have air conditioning was really important. As they question their disposable consumptive lifestyle, those questions are going to benefit Isabella.
NM: And how did Isabella feel about it?
JS: Colin speaks eloquently about how Isabella was teacher as much as benefactor. Adults are stuck in habits they learned as children. She was not as entrenched. Turning off the lights was an adventure for her. Gardening was a whole new world. And she doesn’t have a caffeine problem and now may well avoid it.
NM: You were privy to some very intimate moments as this couple had some painful conversations about whether they should have another child. How do you establish the kind of trust that allows them to be so open with not just you but your eventual audience?
JS: The work that I do is verite and creating a relationship is at the heart of that. A big part of that is empowering my subjects to ask me to turn off the camera, Once they have that power they are much more comfortable opening up their lives to us. Laura is an old-time friend of Michelle’s from high school. We came into this with a certain level of trust and that started us off.
My wife Eden is the producer of the film, She had met Colin and Michell through Laura, Eden and Laura had worked together in the past. About a week before the year was going to start we had dinner with Michelle and learned about the project. As a film-maker who is interested in issues of the environment and prefer character-driven films, I liked the way it would be told through the story of a family rather than just the issues. In the wake of “An Inconvenient Truth,” we were looking for a solution-based project.
NM: One event you document is the burst of media attention the project gets following a rather snarky New York Times article.
JS: The media attention that exploded was unexpected and it was fascinating. Colin was being attacked by both the right and the left and applauded by both the right and left. The individual-based approach drew a lot of appreciation from the religious right, so we knew we had touched a nerve in a way that was interesting.
That Times article was at first very disappointing to Colin because the issues that he was trying to bring to the front were trivialized. There’s a contingent that really focuses on the stunt, as though we were trying to hide that. It was an experiment in order to bring about attention to the issue.
NM: What elements of the no-impact year have they kept in place?
JS: They don’t have air conditioning, they did not get a new dishwasher, they still eat from the farmer’s market largely. The biggest thing is that Colin has dedicated himself to educating people about this issue and started a foundation around the no-impact project. They are designing no-impact weeks for college students, to use this as a teaching tool.