John de Graaf and “Affluenza”
John de Graaf has been producing documentaries, primarily for public television, for 25 years. More than 15 of his programs have been broadcast nationally in primetime on PBS, including the one-hour documentary, Affluenza. As the film points out, since the 1950s, Americans have used more resources than everyone who ever lived before them, and Affluenza and Escape from Affluenza explore the steep social and environmental costs of our over-consumption.
As a filmmaker, de Graaf is the recipient of more than 100 regional, national and international awards. He is the founder and president of the board of directors of the Hazel Wolf Environmental Film Festival. He is also the co-author of the book, Affluenza: the All-Consuming Epidemic and the editor of the upcoming Take Back Your Time, the handbook for Take Back Your Time Day.
1) Do you consider yourself a social activist who makes media as opposed to a media producer who’s interested in social change?
I started out as an activist so almost all the media I do is motivated by my activism and my social concerns. I would say that I’m an involved journalism. I appreciate the important of being a good journalist and not just producing hit-you-over-the-head activist pieces. So there’s a balance there but it comes out of my social concerns.
2) Was there an event in your life that made you become more conscious of your own consumption and committed to implementing social change?
There wasn’t anything that specifically made me aware of my own consumption but early on I was a Vista volunteer, which is the domestic Peace Corps, and I had the social justice idea that we had to be much more fair in our society. I also found that the people I worked with, despite their poverty, often had richer lives in many ways than the people from the suburban world that I’d grown up in. That made me realize very clearly that consuming things wasn’t the source of happiness. And that we have to find the point of what’s enough for people, so that they have a decent life but not the kind of excessiveness that doesn’t make people more happy and carries with it huge costs for the earth and for our health.
I’ve always been concerned about over-consumption as an issue, and particularly its environmental impact, since I have a strong environmental background. I had no plans to make a film about it until Vickie Robbin, who wrote Your Money or Your Life, a bestselling book, came to me and said, “John, you have to make a film about over-consumption and I can help you find the money.” I said, “Vickie, you just said the magic words.” She pointed me in the direction of the Pew Charitable Trust, which gave me a grant to develop the idea and funded the project in full.
3) How did you come up with the metaphor of disease for the Affluenza films?
I was on a plane to the east coast going to another shoot for the film. We were about two-thirds of the way through the filming and we’d been trying to think of a title because we weren’t happy with the original title for the film, which was The Goods Life. I was reading a magazine article and the word affluenza was a throwaway word in a sentence and it was like the light bulb that goes on over the head of a cartoon character. At the time I didn’t realize how lucky a thing that was. As it turned out, it not only gave us the opportunity to use the humor of the disease metaphor, it also gave us a structure for the film, in terms of using the symptoms and treatments metaphors. There were also little advantages that we didn’t think about; such as it was a very simple, short title for people to easily grasp the meaning and the sense that it would be funny. And it put us at the top of the PBS website alphabetically.
4) Why did you emphasize the personal and social impact of over-consumption instead of the environmental impact?
I found out that if I started this film with a focus on the environment, I would lose viewers quickly. It’s the only film on which I’ve done market research. I figured that since we’re countering all the dominant market ideas, such as selling people things, we needed to do a little research of our own. So we used focus groups and polls to see how to frame this message most effectively. And I guess it worked since it’s been far and away my most popular film.
The polls showed us that if you start with the environment – people tend to tune out because they think of themselves as environmentalists and they think they already know it all. So the polls showed that we had to start with the direct impact on people’s lives, such as their health and stress and their kids. The section of the film showing marketers so crassly talking about “owning” and “branding” kids got more response than any other part of the film. So we started there and thought about where we needed to be in 28 minutes to grab the audience so they wouldn’t tune somewhere else at the half hour. Because most people watch commercial television, we thought about putting in our own commercials in the form of funny montages or sequences, in order to seem more like commercial television to the viewer.
5) You use such a humorous approach in the Affluenza films – why do you think so few social documentaries use humor to promote their issues?
Well, I think that too many social documentaries in general are so deadly serious and tend to hit you over the head. The filmmakers have a message and they want to bang that home regardless of whether people are going to continue to watch or not. I think humor is tough because it can be overly sarcastic. There’s a fine line and you have to be careful that it doesn’t just become nasty humor that works for the converted but tends to further alienate people on the other side of the issue. I love Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine), but I think there are moments in which he goes over the top with stuff that can turn off audiences who otherwise would have been sympathetic. But I think a lot of Michael Moore’s success, which he greatly deserves, comes from his humor and that he’s the best example of using humor. Another person who uses humor effectively is Judith Helfand (Blue Vinyl).
So I think that the films that do use humor well have been some of the more successful films out there. We looked at this issue as part of our study and the focus groups tended to show that people like humor, especially when you’re talking about a heavy issue that has a lot of guilt involved. This allows them to put it somewhat outside of themselves for a moment and laugh at somebody else. But then they think about whether it also applies to them.
6) What’s your sense of the impact of Affluenza?
There’s no way to have some scientific way to say that this is what it did, but what we do know is that the original Affluenza has been seen by an estimated 10-15 million PBS viewers, although some of those may be repeat viewers.
It has also been purchased by 500 universities and many of those have bought multiple copies and are using it in all kinds of departments. And, interestingly enough, it’s being shown as much, if not more, in traditional, conservative colleges as it is in progressive colleges. I was told that it’s not likely that one would go through Brigham Young University without seeing it, which to me means that it’s speaking to an audience beyond the already converted.
The United Methodist Church started a program for its church called “Curing Affluenza” and many other churches are using it, as are high schools. It’s also now the best-selling film for Bullfrog Films, its distributor.
I also get anecdotal stories all the time that people tell me, such as, “The film changed my life” and “I sold my big house and I’m living a simpler life.” So in the anecdotal sense, I have a great feeling about the impact of that film.
I even got a call from a New York agent who said that the film had caused such a big buzz nationwide that he wanted me to write a book on it, which is now selling very well.
One of the things that makes me even more pleased, in the sense that it has had some kind of impact that I’m not even aware of, is that Rush Limbaugh has been attacking it. He’s been saying that he’s the cure for affluenza, that it’s all just “liberal guilt” and that if you’re over-consuming, you should be proud because you’re contributing to the productivity of the economy. But the fact that Rush Limbaugh feels it necessary to comment on this means that Affluenza is out there in the public discussion.
7) Do you see this film as being able to sustain persistent behavioral change over time?
I don’t think films by themselves can do that, which is why I’m currently also very active in a social movement by creating a national event called Take Back Your Time Day. As co-chair of the Public Policy Committee of the Simplicity Forum, a national think tank of leaders in the simplicity movement, this is our first national initiative. On October 24th of this year, people will either take off from work or leave work early and attend events on such subjects as over-work, over-scheduling, and over-stress in America. Since we feel that America has become obsessed with producing and consuming at the expense of our health, families, communities, and environment, one of the most important things we can do right now as a society is start to take our productivity in the form of time for a balanced life instead of more money and more stuff. We have about 70 universities planning teach-ins for that day and we hope to end up with more than 200, as well as dozens of churches and labor unions. You can find out more at timeday.org.
I made a film about the subject in the mid-90s called Running Out of Time. It was my first funny film and it was my second most successful film in the 30 or so I’ve done over 25 years. So it led me to believe that this style works.
8) What was the first production on which you used outreach?
I’d say that all of my films have had some outreach component, although most of them haven’t had a good enough one. The web has made outreach without a lot of money so much easier. It’s invaluable to be able to have people go to a website to find additional resources, groups and contacts. Affluenza was my first film that had a website. The response to that website was fantastic and I still hear people all the time say that they use the website.
Many of my films have been used for activist purposes by the groups that represent the issues that were covered in the films. I made a film called Green Plans, about national environmental policy in the Netherlands and New Zealand being used as models for other countries. The organization that promotes that has shown it widely. For instance, Maine’s governor referenced it in his State of the State address a few years ago when he said he was going to model the state environmental policy on the ideas in the film. But none of that has been to degree of Affluenza.
I did a couple of films on the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II that were widely used in terms of education. Most of my films have probably been used more for educational purposes and consciousness-raising then for activism.
9) What strategies would you attribute to your successes?
I think one of the things that has worked for me is that I try to be very careful about facts. I understate rather than overstate. I make sure that I use narration as a way to provide facts and to move the film along but I’m very careful that the narrator not be preachy.
Younger producers come to me and say, “I don’t like narration because I like to let people tell their own stories.” And I say, “So do I – their own stories.” I think they’re great in providing the anecdotal information but they don’t need to give all the basic facts. In many cases, they may not be accurate and one has to be very careful. I’m not saying that there aren’t terrific films without narration. But there are a lot of films that people would have been wise to use narration. They tried not to use it and tried to get people to say absolutely everything and it ends up being confusing and too long.
As the founder and the president of the board of the Hazel Wolf Environmental Film Festival, I see a lot of environmental films. And it always troubles me that people think that it’s enough to use rhetoric and people’s opinions and not have factual information. There should at least be an acknowledgement that there is another side to the issue. For instance, there’s a kind of standard film that comes in and you know as soon as it starts what the film’s going to be. Take the issue of ancient forests, which is a big issue out here. At the beginning of the film you hear the sound of a chainsaw and you see a big tree. Then you see the big tree falling with activists shouting “cut no more” and you see that they’re chained to a tree. And you ask yourself “Who is this going to convince except the people who are already convinced?” It cheers up the people working on the issue because someone has actually paid attention and in that sense I guess it’s served a useful purpose. But this is far from the purpose that it could serve, if it helped really educate wider numbers of people.
So it’s key to have people who are viewing the film realize that you’ve done your homework, studied the facts and paid attention to the opponent’s argument. I have no problem with a point of view – all my shows have a point of view but they, hopefully, don’t knock people over the head, and they’re fun, and they use stories.
Many of the early films that I did were biographies because I thought that I could take on certain issues best through the story of a single person who was motivated to make a difference. Early on I made For Earth’s Sake: The Life and Times of David Brower, the environmentalist. And I did a story called Mother of the Year about an eighty-year-old woman who became so involved in her concern about nuclear arms that she got arrested for blockading a submarine. You get the viewer interested in this woman and her passion and, at the same time, you can tell some of the facts about the arms race and educate people. I thought a lot about how to treat that subject because at the time there were a lot of groups that were protesting but they were very counter-culture groups. While I had no problem personally with that, I didn’t feel that they came across well with the general public. I was looking for a person that could convey the message to people who would otherwise not be sympathetic at all. And then this white-haired grandmother shows up and turns out to be an incredible person in her ability to speak to the wider public and to tell the story through.
So, overall, stories are essential and opinion is the last thing. You have to create for the audience a reason for them to respect the opinions they hear. You can’t just have people in the beginning of the film say “this is what I think.” I’ve seen too many films that think that this is good enough. First, you have to establish why we have to care about what that person has to say.
10) As a social media producer, are there recurring obstacles you’ve encountered along the way?
The plus side is that equipment has become cheaper and more manageable and higher quality. The downside is that budgets have been badly cut for public television and there’s a lot more competition. I talk to the people at the Ford and Rockefeller foundations and it’s amazing how many video proposals they get in the course of a week. So you really have to find some way to rise above the crowd to attract attention to your project.
I have the advantage that I work with a public TV station and I’ve been both praised and criticized for that. But I’ve found that it’s been very useful to me to team up with a public TV station. I’ve been with the Seattle station for 20 years now and while we do projects together, it doesn’t stop me from doing my own projects. My public television projects are usually co-productions with KCTS and that gives me extra credibility with funders and with PBS. So I’m really fortunate to have this relationship with a public TV station and I think that other folks should cultivate that more.
I believe that there’s a bit of negativity in regards to public TV and its limitations, which creates an adversarial stance between some producers, particularly social producers, and public TV stations. I’ve tried to break that down because I think that most of the folks at public television are good people who believe in public television serving the public good. They may also be nervous about how far they can go, particularly in this climate, but they want to do the right thing and they are not the enemy. I think that too many producers who don’t get exactly what they want tend to see them as that.
I also think that sometimes you have to compromise. I was once censored by public TV and I laugh about it now because I don’t think it’s a big thing. In Escape from Affluenza, they made me take a little humorous segment out of the show. My executive producer here at the station told me to fight PBS about it and I tried but they said that if I wanted it on primetime, I’d have to take it out. My feeling was I’d take it out because I would rather have 95 percent of my message get out than none of it. I think that generally we’re such an individualistic culture that it’s difficult for people to feel that there’s any necessity to compromise. Sometimes what I say is not the kind of thing that activists want to hear. But it’s the result of my twenty-five years of experience and my real commitment to making a difference rather than standing on principles.
11) What’s your next project?
I’m working on a couple of films with KCTS. I’m shooting in Africa for a film about world hunger funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, called Half Full: The Unfinished Campaign Against Hunger.
I’m also working on an untitled film about global labeling programs. It covers how effective programs such as Fair Trade Coffee are in helping both the environment and the poor and how consumers can understand which ones really work and which ones are “green washing.”
I’ve also been trying for a long time to do a film called Rocking the Boat: Studs Terkel’s 20th Century. It’s a look back at social change in the 20th century through Studs Terkel’s eyes. And I’ve been turned down for funding three or four times by ITVS, even though I’ve made the final panel. One time it was because they didn’t like my sample tape, which was Affluenza. They felt that the sample tape was too conventional, even though Affluenza pushes the envelope about as much as you can get away with. The reason they gave for considering it too conventional was because it had a white male host. So it’s frustrating because I don’t know what to do about those things. I’ve got a lot of good material on Terkel and I’m afraid he’s going to pass on before this film is done and then people will say, “Why didn’t someone do something on him?”