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No Impact Man: Portrait of a Conflicted Green Marriage

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 21, 2009 at 10:29AM

The documentary No Impact Man, which is slowly rolling out in theaters around the country, is about preachy environmentalist author Colin Beavan, who persuades his wife Michelle Conlin, a delightful BusinessWeek reporter, to go along with him on a rather extreme year-long experiment in no-impact living in a Manhattan apartment.
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Thompson on Hollywood

The documentary No Impact Man, which is slowly rolling out in theaters around the country, is about preachy environmentalist author Colin Beavan, who persuades his wife Michelle Conlin, a delightful BusinessWeek reporter, to go along with him on a rather extreme year-long experiment in no-impact living in a Manhattan apartment.

In the process of not creating garbage, eating local produce in season, walking up flights of stairs, shutting off power and riding bicycles, Conlin becomes a happier and healthier woman, even though she breaks down and buys the occasional Cafe Latte and lifts ice cubes off a neighbor to cool her toddler's milk. Conlin, once committed to what she calls a "lifestyle redesign," stuck to it, she says. "So many times, I said, 'This is going too far.' I'd start to question, can I unwind all these things? He had asked me, and I said, 'Yes.' I made a commitment. We were figuring it out as we went along, trying to muddle through as best we could."

Laura Gabbert and Conlin were friends who first met in the 8th grade. The filmmaker had been following Beavan's career, and when she heard about the project she pressed the couple to let her make a film. At first, Beavan said no. Gabbert kept at it until Beavan made her agree to shoot the film sustainably--no lights, cars, or new equipment. She had to ride a bicycle and shoot film at the same time.

Directors Gabbert and Justin Schein shot 150 hours of footage over 16 months with an old DV camera and no sound person. Instead of throwing a bunch of batteries away, they used four rechargeable ones. Their subjects were sophisticated, and quickly figured out what they needed, calling to let them know when something had come up. "I knew things weren't comfortable," Gabbert says. "That worked to our advantage. I knew the dynamic was, Colin was gung ho, Michelle was the skeptic. We had conflict and humor."

During the editing, Gabbert and Schein realized that their B story had become the A story. Wisely, they balanced the environmental with the marital so that we not only learn about sustainable living but the conflict in the marriage of two smart, attractive people.

Beavan wrote a book about the experience, which he talks about in Time. Here's an interview with the No Impact couple:


This article is related to: Genres, Independents, Indies, Documentaries


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.