We have Fuel and Dirt and Earth Days and An Inconvenient Truth and The Cove and Food Inc., documentaries alerting us to the trouble we’ve gotten ourselves into fooling around with Mother Nature.
And now there’s No Impact Man: The Documentary, a “family feud” version of ecological disharmony, and how one New York City-based clan tried to do something about it.
In this feud, you’ll meet Colin Beavan, writer of historical non-fiction, who joins forces with wife/BusinessWeek staffer Michelle Conlin and their cute 2-year-old daughter Isabella to fight the temptations of modern living and become environmentally correct. So, after a year in the Big Apple of no electricity, no new clothes, no meat, no car transportation and all organic food and cleaning supplies, the Beavan-Conlins believe they’ve become politically correct in the process as well.
Colin chronicles his adventures on a blog that becomes a book, while filmmakers Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein captured Colin and company’s bold experiment in their new film No Impact Man: The Documentary.
From afar, the whole enterprise seems like serendipity. The project came about because co-director Gabbert has been close friends with Michelle Conlin since the eighth grade, and has been keeping tabs on Colin and his writing career.
“Michelle had been telling us about the project,” says Gabbert, based in Los Angeles. “Michelle was game for the film, but Colin was reluctant at first.”
“I think for one thing, he was hoping that the project would be a respite from his New York City crazy life,” says the Brooklyn-based Schein. “So to him, having a camera was imposing. And he was reluctant to have a group of people not living in the spirit of the project.”
Concessions were made. Gabbert and Schein decided not to buy new equipment and skip the lights and cars for transportation. Also verboten were new batteries for the cameras. They used three old ones they kept recharging.
As seen in the film, six months into the radical living experiment, Michelle gets tired of the whole deal. She longs for shopping and that Starbucks coffee she’s addicted to. The tension between husband and wife is there on-screen, and everyone—hubby, wife, audience, is uncomfortable about it. So much for serendipity.
What were things like offscreen?
“There were some limitations (to our filming),” says Schein. “We had a spoken agreement to turn off the camera at any point—an agreement in case they thought something that was filmed that may be harmful to the family so we wouldn’t use it. There may have been one or two instances where that was done.”
The uncomfortable situation leads to negotiations and discussions between the adult participants, which both filmmakers believe gave the film an important personal touch and narrative drive.
“We get nice feedback about the relationship in the film,” says Gabbert. “It’s about pushing your partner and fulfilling their dreams in some way.”
One of the toughest parts of filming came when the project received a barrage of publicity following a large article in the New York Times.
“We didn’t expect the amount of publicity,” says Gabbert, who spent five months editing 150 hours of film shot over a 15-month period. “This changed the whole tone of the project. There were less than 5,000 people looking at the blog, and then Colin is asked to speak on the environmental movement. He had to think about what he wanted to say. It did make a story point in the film.”
As evidenced by the film’s fly-on-the-wall style, both filmmakers are fans of the cinema verite documentary filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman (High School) and David and Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens). Both have extensive backgrounds in documentaries, although Gabbert has also done work on feature films. Each is now independently pursuing new projects on different coasts.
As for Colin Beavan and Michelle Conlin, word is that Columbia Pictures has optioned Colin’s book with hopes of turning it into a movie. Although the production is still in its earliest stages, the star is said to likely be Will Smith.
Now, that’s entertainment, ecologically speaking.