Thoughts on… No Impact Man (2009)

No Impact Man, 2009.

Directed by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein.
Starring Colin Beavan and Michelle Conlin.

No Impact Man

Documentary following Colin Beavan, his wife Michelle and their two year old daughter Isabella as they attempt to live environmentally friendly for a year in New York.

No Impact Man
It only took about twenty minutes into ‘No Impact Man‘ to realise that I was, completely unwittingly, actually learning. I know that’s partly the point of documentaries, to actually teach, inform or put across a certain opinion, but it’s rare to encounter one that has you so engaged from the start that you’re almost unaware that you’re learning because you’re enjoying it so much. No Impact Man manages, almost seamlessly, to pull off that very trick.

It begins with the family – Colin, Michelle and daughter Isabella, preparing for their year living as environmentally friendly as possible – Colin planning excitedly, Michelle apprehensive about the sacrifices she’ll have to make, namely giving up coffee and television. There’s no obvious introductions, we just start naturally enough at the beginning of their documented year, which stops any of the film feeling forced or unnatural. The two key characters of Colin and Michelle are established easily, setting the cinematic tone of the feature – honest and practically unobserved, in that the characters are rarely influenced by the presence of the cameras.

Colin, the idealist of the family, the positive-thinking, natural leader, is arguably the ‘star’ of the film, (after all, he is the ‘No Impact Man’ of the title) and he’s presented favourably (of course) but not invincibly. He occasionally gets bouts of self doubt, particularly when they cut off their electricity about midway through the year-long project, leaving him wondering whether this particular action is too far and going to undermine the whole exercise. The other danger is also that Colin may have ended up being portrayed as some kind of foolhardy dreamer, dragging his family along behind him, but despite Michelle’s objections and complaints, he never comes across as uncaring.

Michelle frequently acts as the voice of reason to Colin’s optimist, but she doesn’t cross over to become unsupportive. She understands why Colin has embarked on this project and is behind him all the way, even if she occasionally allows herself a break once in a while (the odd sneaky coffee, electricity in her workplace).

The main question that I suppose will spring to mind, and the question the film (and the project) sets out to answer is, why do this? Why live in a completely impact free manner and what will it prove? Colin begins by stating, “The fact of the matter is that if only I change, it’s not going to make a difference, but the hope is that if each of us as individuals change, it’s going to inspire everybody to change.” However as the film progresses and the media get wind of their project, several journalists take a negative approach to the family’s decision, claiming that they’ve merely attention seeking and not actually making a difference at all. Colin remains good natured about this though, appearing on TV and radio chat-shows, more than willing to soak up the criticisms and laugh along with some presenters who, it seems, have more interest in ridicule than reporting. In fact one journalist who had previously written negatively about them, who had questioned Colin’s sincerity in a piece she had written, invites them to brunch and confesses that she has changed her mind about them. This conversation between her and Michelle is particularly illuminating, in that it reveals some of the reasons for the media backlash the family experienced, such as their project making the public feel guilty, or for suggesting that people ‘do without’.

As part of becoming a ‘no-impact family’, many changes are made to their lifestyles, and these are shown unbiasedly as having varying degrees of success, from the completely successful (cycling, vegetable plot) to the failures (stone pot fridge). Most positive of these changes, especially for the family themselves, is the home-made laundry detergent, which works to bring Colin and Michelle back together during a particularly rough time. In a very sweet scene Colin and Isabella are washing their clothes in the bath filled with detergent by walking around on them, with Michelle eventually joining them, the whole family splashing around and re-bonding after Michelle has been questioning the validity of the project.

Ultimately, this is the key to the documentary’s success, in that the family issues are every bit as vital to the narrative as the environmental issues being addressed. They go through various ups and downs, including a possible second pregnancy, all during the pursuit of the project, and it’s these genuine family moments that get the viewer completely attached to the characters. When you finish watching No Impact Man, you realise that while you were wrapped up in the story of one family’s year pursuing an ideal, you were also quietly being equipped with the knowledge, statistics and desire to take on board and put into action a couple or maybe even many of their ideas. So in that respect, No Impact Man is an unequivocal success, and an informative, warm, engrossing one at that.

Roger Holland

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