Putting plastic on the radar at Aspen’s MountainSummit festival
August 20, 2010
ASPEN – When Jeb Berrier was approached by Suzan Beraza, a friend and filmmaker, about appearing in a movie about the plastic-bag challenge between Aspen and Telluride, Berrier figured, why not? It was a short piece about a little-known event – Which town could use more reusable bags at local grocery stores? – between two small ski resorts. Berrier has been an on-and-off Telluride resident for almost two decades, so it wasn’t like being an outsider commenting on a local issue. And for Berrier, who had taken on all manner of projects – local-TV host, directing, commercials, being an extra on “Pirates of the Caribbean” – in an effort to cobble together an acting career after studying acting at the University of Massachusetts, it was a gig.
So what if he didn’t have much knowledge on the subject of plastic? And so what if Berrier didn’t really have an opinion on the plastic bags that are handed out and disposed of with no more thought than if you’d dropped a penny in the street?
“I hadn’t thought much about it,” Berrier said about the plastics issue. “I call myself an environmentally minded person – I ride my bike instead of driving. But I had no idea about any of the stuff involving plastic. It wasn’t on my radar.”
For those who are disgusted by the thoughtless waste created by plastic bags and one-use plastic items, for those scared by the health threat posed by such plastics as PVC and BPA, for those enraged by the havoc discarded plastic wreaks on sea animals, for those incensed by the “gyres” – the massive swirls of plastic debris floating in various parts of the world’s oceans – Berrier, a stocky, balding, bespectacled 42-year-old with more than a passing resemblance to Jason Alexander, who played George on “Seinfeld,” has come onto the radar screen as a face of the outrage. With Berrier as a tour guide through the plastic universe, Beraza’s little film about the Aspen-Telluride challenge has grown into “Bag It,” a feature-length documentary that offers a broad look at plastic and the waste and danger it represents.
“People will see me in a store and point to someone with a bag and say, ‘That must really piss you off,'” Berrier said.
“Bag It” is not merely a rant, but, in the vein of Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” and the films of Michael Moore, addresses its topic with a narrative and a touch of humor, lifting it to the level of entertainment. Add in Beraza’s strokes of visual style; a wealth of archival footage; and a budget that allowed for a 10-day shoot in Europe, including a stop in Ireland, which had banned the distribution of nonbiodegradable plastic bags, and “Bag It” has become an award winner, taking the Audience Award at the Ashland Independent Film Festival in Oregon, and tying for the Audience Award at Mountainfilm in Telluride. An early version of the film was runner-up for the Audience Award at the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival in Nevada City, Calif.
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The 79-minute film is also getting an extensive tour of the festival and specialty screening circuit, with presentations up and down California, at the Melbourne Environmental Film Festival in Australia, the Eco Focus Film Festival in Athens, Ga., and the Santa Fe Film Festival.
It has its Aspen premiere on Sunday, Aug. 29, at the second annual MountainSummit, a festival of film and more co-presented by Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House and Mountainfilm in Telluride. Berrier – who will be fresh off directing a stage version of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” in Telluride’s Town Park – and Beraza are scheduled to attend.
When Beraza started up the project, she was thinking small, partly because, at least in Berrier’s eyes, the anti-plastics movement was still small. But Berrier says the movement started to gain traction about two years ago, as information about the health hazards of plastic – and perhaps even more dramatically, the disturbing and incontrovertible reality of the gyres – came to light. “Very quickly it became about a lot more than the bags. It got bigger and bigger,” Berrier said.
As the project grew, so did Berrier’s distaste for plastic, and one of the keys to the film is how those two overlap. Berrier didn’t come into the film with an agenda, other than to add something to his resume, and his performance is more like a character than an expert talking head, spouting off well-rehearsed numbers and warnings.
“I was a little worried because it was her passion, her idea. How was I going to put myself in her shoes and pretend to care about this stuff?” Berrier said of Beraza. “But I did end up caring about it and getting outraged as I learned about it. I wouldn’t look at it as acting. It was me being me, learning more and more, getting more invested in it, the human health, the toxins.
“The fact that I’m not the aggro environmental guy makes it more relatable.”
Compounding Berrier’s ire, and lending another narrative element, Berrier’s partner gets pregnant, and gives birth to their son, William, during filming.
Viewers of the film don’t need impending parenthood to become angered by the great heap of unneeded plastic out there. “Bag It” presents footage, with corresponding statistics and talking-head commentary, about populations of sea birds and sea turtles being decimated due to ingested plastic. Plenty of time is devoted to the health hazards, especially to infants, of certain types of plastic found in toys, baby bottles and even teething objects. (A good bit of time is also spent explaining that no one from the plastic industry would comment for the film.) On the brighter side, “Bag It” also tracks the growing movement of communities that are bagging the use of plastic bags; Telluride was among those that has tried.
But probably the most impact is made by one statistic: Around the world, people use 500 billion plastic bags a year, nearly a hundred per person. None of them are biodegradable, so they just stick around in trees, oceans, rivers, streets, deserts.
“You get into these numbers that people can’t really fathom,” Berrier said. “Five hundred billion bags? When you get above certain numbers, it’s shown that people can’t get their minds around it.”
Which is where Berrier comes in, with a laugh, a jab at the plastic industry, a quick interaction on the streets of Telluride or the pubs of Ireland.
“Some of this stuff is so depressing, you want to shut off and not think about it,” he said. “But the humor and birth pull you back and give you some optimism and keep you entertained.”
• • • •
Gram Slaton, executive director of the Wheeler Opera House, led a group of four Wheeler employees to Telluride in May for a scouting expedition at Mountainfilm, looking for films to bring to Aspen. Because the 32nd annual Mountainfilm included scores of films, including some two dozen of feature length, it was a process of whittling away, and seeing what made sense for the Aspen audience.
“Bag It” leaped to the top. “Torre” – an Aspen city councilman – “stood up at city council and said, ‘Plastic bags are the devil.’ That was easy; we knew what was a hot topic,” Slaton said.
Also obvious picks were “GasLand,” made by Josh Fox after he was offered $100,000 to allow drilling for natural gas on his property; and “The 10 Conditions of Love,” about the exiled leader of Uygher people, a Muslim group that lives in China. “GasLand” made sense because of Aspen’s proximity to the natural gas operations in Garfield County. “The 10 Conditions of Love,” Slaton said, “because it has Aspen Institute written all over it.” He added that Rebiya Kadeer, the Uygher leader, couldn’t make the Mountainfilm screening, but is scheduled for an appearance in Aspen: “It’s a coup to get her here.” In addition to the screening, Kadeer is scheduled for a morning talk session.
Another feature in the Aspen event that didn’t make it to Telluride is “The Tillman Story,” a documentary about Pat Tillman, the former NFL player whose combat death in Afghanistan was used for political purposes. The film, directed by Amir-Ben Levy, earned a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
Also to be screened: “Eastern Rises,” about fly-fishing in Russia’s Far East; “I Am,” about the spiritual search of Tom Shadyac, the director of “Ace Ventura” and “Bruce Almighty”; “Bearwalker of the North Woods,” about a man with 40 years’ experience living with bears; “Freedom Riders,” detailing the 1961 Civil Rights activism in the South; “Sons of Perdition,” about young Mormons escaping the cult-like atmosphere of Colorado City, Ariz.; and “Somewhere Near Tapachula,” a surfing film by Australians Jonno Durant and Stefan Hunt, whose previous film, “Surfing 50 States,” was a hit at last year’s MountainSummit.
The Moving Mountains Symposium, titled the Extinction Crisis, focuses on human-caused species extinction. Among the speakers is Louie Psihoyos, the Coloradan who won last year’s Academy Award for best documentary for “The Cove.”
MountainSummit, featuring film screenings, guest appearances by filmmakers, an art exhibition, conversations and more, opens Thursday, Aug. 26 and runs through Sunday, Aug. 29.