Is it because I know that paper coffee cups can be lined with a plastic coating, leaching potentially harmful chemicals into my body?
Or am I trying to cut down on my contribution to landfills and, inadvertently, the world’s oceans, where plastics escaping the waste-stream are, in some cases, literally choking the life out of ancient marine animals that have dodged evolutionary curveballs since the days of the dinosaurs?
Berrier, in Bag It by local director Suzan Beraza that is making its Telluride debut at Mountainfilm this weekend (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Palm and Sunday, 4 p.m., Nugget), brings home the fact that these questions affect us all, and will, forever.
Still, he persists: Is my steering clear of throwaway cups and plastic bottles “about consumption or health?” he asks.
“Health,” I blurt (although waste reduction is an obvious benefit), and show Berrier a story I wrote in 2005 about a trend among expectant parents dispensing with traditional (read plastic-rich) baby shower rituals (think disposable diaper “cakes” decorated with rattles and bottles of baby lotion) when I was a journalism graduate student on the light-and-fluffy feature beat.
Back then I learned that a major concern for some parents-to-be was the influx of plastic into their newborns’ lives – toys and baby bottles containing chemicals like phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA) that were found to disrupt rodents’ hormones in laboratory studies.
“So you’ve known about this for a long time,” Berrier says. “I didn’t know about this stuff until I started making the movie.”
Before Bag It, Berrier admits, “I didn’t make it my business to know about environmental stuff.”
And therein lies the key to why Bag It will profoundly impact the lives of everyone who sees it, charting, as it does, the course of an ordinary guy who never really cared about “environmental stuff” who suddenly becomes passionately concerned.
“It’s been really nice that it has resonated more with people than maybe we initially thought,” says director Beraza.“We tried to make it more accessible and friendlier than most environmental documentaries.”
If Bag It’s recent success at the Ninth Annual Ashland Independent Film Festival, where it was the audience-pick (as a work-in-progress) as best documentary feature from a field of 20 submissions is any indication, the strategy worked.
Beraza attributes that success to Berrier and his ability to personify “Everyman.”
“He’s not preachy, he’s very non-threatening, he’s funny, he’s neat to go along with on a journey,” she explains.
Beraza’s original vision for the film was to document a competition between the towns of Telluride and Aspen to see which community could make the largest dent in its consumption of single-use plastic grocery store bags. (Telluride won).
But the film soon morphed to reveal a much larger picture of the complex (and confounding) subject of plastic and its effects on the health of the environment and its inhabitants.
It could have easily become dry, overwhelming and super-saturated with mind-numbing statistics, yet the affable Berrier, his keen wit juxtaposed with his seemingly uncontrollable hair, makes a critical connection with viewers by inviting us deep into his life.
Over the course of the film we share his horror at the massive amounts of fossil fuels wasted in making disposable plastic water and soda bottles (even as millions of gallons of crude oil flow in the Gulf of Mexico more than a month after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig off the Louisiana coast).
We laugh as Berrier feigns an interview with a plastics industry representative, after getting the umpteenth runaround from industry PR flacks.
We cringe when he cringes while a ranger at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge 1,250 miles northwest of Honolulu pokes around the carcass of a dead Laysan Albatross to count the dozen or so non-recyclable plastic bottle caps contained in the bird’s decayed stomach.
But the kicker comes when Berrier learns his partner, Watch Art Director Anne Reeser, is pregnant.
Suddenly we’re privy to the cares, concerns and innermost thoughts of an Everyman who is about to become a father – just as he’s grappling with the contents of this plastic Pandora’s Box, now open, that will permanently affect his child’s health and welfare, and all in the name of convenience.
“The truth always was the best story,” admits Berrier, a character actor par excellence. “Anne getting pregnant as I’m learning about the harms of plastic – what’s a better story than that?”
And little William Emerson Berrier’s entry into the world, tastefully recorded by Beraza in the delivery room – OK, I defy anyone to watch it and not choke up.
Mountainfilm Festival Director David Holbrooke agrees.
“No mother is going to see this film and say Johnson’s Baby Shampoo is nothing to worry about,” he says, summing up the impact of this higher quality than its $150,000 budget would suggest homegrown documentary.
“I look for films that are going to change people’s behavior,” Holbrooke continues. “This is one of those films.
“I think it’s the best documentary I’ve seen on this topic.”