Sundance Docs: “No Impact Man” makes a big splash
Author Colin Beavan was tired of writing about the problems that face our world and merely talking about environmental change. He decided the time had come to try out change on himself, and convinced his wife and 2-year old daughter to go along. The idea was to see whether they could be happy without being consumers and without contributing to the many pressures that modern lifestyles place upon the earth. He dubbed himself, “No Impact Man” and created a blog and a couple friends decided to document the process. When it was all over, he thought, he could write a book. Simple enough, it seems, but nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems.
No Impact Man opens with Colin’s appearance on the Colbert Report, part of an unexpected media explosion that began when a New York Times reporter discovered his blog and wrote about it and suddenly everybody wanted to hear about his experiment. So far the project appeared to be nothing more than a publicity stunt, a gimmick designed to sell his book and generate advertising revenue on his blog.
In part, what the film accomplishes is to show that the appearance is superficial. It goes back to the beginnings, to some of the preliminary discussions between Colin and his wife, Michelle Conlin. While Colin may have been naive about what he could achieve and its impact on his life going in to the project, the process clearly tested him and his family. The film is only partly about the experiment and the media attention it generated and the surprisingly strong reactions from people who heard about Colin and his family. It is about a marriage and about the very real pressures involved in a relationship between two very different people, with very different passions and interests, who nevertheless are obviously very much in love, and about what happens when these tensions are increased by a series of difficult and self-imposed restrictions on lifestyle.
So far it all seems serious, and it absolutely is, but the film is also very funny - not in the sense that the filmmakers try to play this material for laughs, but funny because it is life and it is difficult and unpredictable and silly and tense and even raw but luckily not tragic. There is a very wonderful tension in the film between Colin and Michelle, as she resists and bends the rules, as she tests him and questions him and he pushes back, as she encourages him when he begins to doubt the value of the project, as they find out how to compromise when they are both quite stubborn, as they find that nothing in their marriage and their lives is really unsusceptible to being affected by their experiment.
The filmmakers achieved a very intimate film, without seeming intrusive. They do observe quite personal details and conversations, but make clear that Colin and Michelle were aware of their presence, and covering their occasional concern that things were verging on reality TV-style emotional exploitation. The film is very candid about the sceptical questions that could be raised about the project, in part because Colin and Michelle raise these questions for themselves: is individual action really going to make a difference? is this more than a gimmick? does it trivialize environmental problems? can their “green” environmental choices outweigh the deeper impact they have as beneficiaries of a destructive system (Michelle, for example, writes for Business Week)? These questions are not answered - the film acknowledges their seriousness and importance, but ultimately sides with a kind of optimism that consists of hope: the hope that leads one to act as if those actions can make a difference. During the question and answer period that followed the film, Colin said something that highlighted an important emphasis in the film: that No Impact Man was not about trying to convince the audience to live like him, but rather to encourage them to see something of themselves in Michelle, who took part in the project at first reluctantly but gradually experienced its impact on her life.
One of the very nice things about the film is that it makes clear: making no impact requires the collaboration of many, that it takes a community but can only start with a few. It won’t work to wait until there is new legislation that makes it easy: individuals have to make the hard choices now that allow them to have an impact on others and will give weight to the political commitment necessary to effect global change.