by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
When Concord, MA resident and octogenarian Jean Hill learned from her grandson, Mack, about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the contribution that plastic water bottles were making to the problem, she decided she needed to do something about it. She took a petition to her city meeting in 2010 with the proposal to ban bottled water in Concord, but it was rejected due to imprecision of language, although most residents present seemed to support the idea. In 2011, Jean returned with a sturdier version, but lost by seven votes.
Divide in Concord picks up the story near the end of 2011, when Hill and a small but determined group of Concord activists were developing a more coordinated grassroots campaign to attempt passage at the April 2012 town meeting. Director Kris Kaczor read about their work and watched a short film about their efforts made by the New York Times, and he knew this was the next film he needed to make. He had been feeling a “personal hunch” that his next project would focus on water, so he contacted Hill and she was happy to allow Kaczor and his crew to film their efforts.
Hill was joined by Jill Appel, also a local Concord resident, in their campaign against bottled water. As Hill and Appel put it, “Jean is the inspiration, Jill is the perspiration.” Jean Hill provided the vision and the initial idea, while Jill Appel brought energy, strategy, and organizational skills. Throughout the film we also meet Hill’s son and grandson, who are active in the process, as well as local artists who create art with plastic water bottles in order to draw attention to the number of water bottles used each second in the United States (1500). The film also shows a group of high school students excited about getting involved with the bottled water ban in the first year they’re able to vote, and shows some of the conservation innovations they and their teachers are implementing in their school building and the culture of the school. The film follows Hill and Appel as they go door-to-door in their community, do phone canvassing, attend city council meetings, and tirelessly engage in all manner of other advocacy projects in order to ban the sale of single-use water bottles in Concord. We watch as this little band of Concord residents faces full-page spreads in the local newspaper sponsored by Nestle, and experiences an influx of cash against their campaign that can’t quite be traced back to International Bottled Water Association, but interesting links present themselves.
Kaczor and his crew not only focus on the proponents of the bottled water ban, but also provide space for opponents to share their views and present their arguments. Concord resident Adriana Cohen becomes the face of the opposition, pointing out that water is the healthiest thing one can buy in a bottle. Why ban bottled water rather than unhealthy drinks available in similar bottles, if we’re really worried about health? She also emphasizes freedom of choice, that Concord residents should be able to choose the products they want to buy. If there is a demand for bottled water, local businesspeople should be able to supply that demand and earn money from a healthful product. The film also introduces us to local merchants, city administrators, policymakers, church leaders, and other Concord residents, both in favor of and against the ban, so that viewers come away with a well-rounded understanding of the issues involved.
All this takes place within the context of the city of Concord, MA, which remembers itself as the birthplace of the Revolutionary War, as well as the home of several famous authors including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Kaczor intentionally draws in the revolutionary history of this place, asking the viewer which of these groups represents the freedom and revolutionary independence for which early colonists fought. He also brings in the connection to Emerson and Thoreau’s Existentialist understanding of the world, and the freedom that comes with simplicity.
We spoke with Kris Kaczor recently about the making of this film, and share his thoughts and reflections here.
Whole Terrain: Can you speak to some of your personal sense of the importance of this taking place in Concord, MA, with its particular historical significance in our nation’s collective story?
Kris Kaczor: At the time I happened to be reading Walden by Thoreau, so it was kind of an interesting personal synchronicity with the story happening there. The ideas in Walden were definitely sticking in my head, especially the overall idea of economy — basically the idea that one should not take more than one needs from nature and that all surplus is immoral. Bottled water essentially is an item of convenience rather than economy. So there began an interesting debate.
Also, social change (the main objective behind the campaign) kind of screams revolution. The idea that Concord was the home of the American Revolution is thick in the air. Everyone dresses up to do reenactments, and there’s definite town-wide pride around the idea of revolution. Since that was the impetus of the campaign, it kind of went hand in hand that this was a form of modern-day revolution.
WT: What were some of the main challenges you faced in making this film?
KK: The townsfolk were pretty open, so there weren’t many challenges with contacting local people. We only had one major rejected interview, and that was from Tom First, the founder of Nantucket Nectar. He’s a big bottler in town, and he was a person at town meeting the previous year speaking strongly against the campaign, but he refused an interview. He was a pretty major character in this process. It’s to be debated whether opposition to the ban was a joint effort between the International Bottled Water Association and the local opponents, but there’s nothing to directly prove that.
WT: What were some of your favorite moments during the making of this film?
KK: The actual town meeting, the filming of town meeting. I remember looking into the monitor for the camera, and truly feeling what the, anticipation and the fright and everything that Jean and Jill were going through. To see that live was amazing, because we had all been together through this entire journey, and it kind of felt like I was watching the movie real time while I was going through this. It was fantastic.
There was one character, Bill Monague, who was very briefly in the actual film, but in the DVD extras that we have coming out in December, he’s featured a bit. I’d say that was one of my favorite interviews. He told us the story of a book he wrote called “Little Mouse,” which is to encourage kids to read Walden. Then he took us to Thoreau’s grave and shared some sentiments there, so if you want to see them, look in the DVD extras.
WT: Do you think your crew being there made a difference in the outcome of the petition?
KK: Potentially. There’s no saying one way or another. Our intention was to be objective. We covered the opponents’ side fully and thoroughly and as openly as we could. Everyone knew what we were doing: making a documentary of everything that was happening in town without taking a slant. Whether we agree one way or another, we feel that both sides have valid arguments, and it’s interesting how one small population took on the idea of economy.
WT: Was banning plastic water bottles something you cared about and wanted beforehand, or was it something you just thought would make an interesting story?
KK: At the beginning it was an interesting story. We tried so hard to be objective. We did see validity on both sides. We saw the struggle on the side of some of the business owners. We knew their side. When it comes down to it, personally, I think we’re at a dire moment in history as far as trash, pollution, overuse, and planned obsolescence. Add all that up, and it doesn’t take a scientist to tell us that we’re probably polluting too much. It’s definitely worth thinking about.
WT: What do you hope people will take away from this film?
KK: That heroes can exist. That one person can make a difference. That the end of times are not here yet. That we can, as people, express civil disobedience and speak out against what we feel is not right. That a better solution is potentially there.
And to read Walden!
It was meant as a way to get these ideas out to the general public. The Concord group wanted to be, as Jean said, a stone in the water, with the rings going out. If Concord could do it, other people could do it. So it was their innocent and noble attempt, and it seems to be working.
Since Concord’s bottled water ban efforts hit the media, a growing movement of colleges, universities, national parks, and even San Francisco’s public spaces have all banned the sale of single-use bottled water. Many of these locations have installed water bottle filling stations and other ways to easily access clean drinking water.
In Concord, Kaczor says, most people have complied with the ban, although some business owners have continued to sell single-use bottled water and paid penalties for doing so. But most people have become used to the ban and are accessing water in other ways.
Showing the complexity of the issue from various angles including conservation, public policy, business, community organizing, media, art, and education, this film would be an excellent one to show to high school or college classes. One could generate exciting in-class discussions and debates, and the film could supply an interesting writing prompt for persuasive essays. Community groups interested in attempting a similar project would learn much from watching the experience of Hill and Appel as they navigate their town’s political system.
Divide in Concord is available for schools and community groups through Bullfrog Films, and is set to be released on iTunes, Amazon, and Hulu on December 15, 2015.