Pull Focus: Suzan Beraza
Fatemeh Shahkolahi and Erin Finicane
Founder of Reel Thing, Suzan Beraza’s films have appeared on national public television in the United States, and at many festivals, winning top awards at Worldfest, Montreal Film Festival, and Mountainfilm in Telluride, among others. Previous films include Life’s A Beach, American Outrage, Blue Planet Run, Water, A Clear Solution and Troubled Waters: The Dilemma of Dams.
Beraza’s latest film, “Bag It,” follows “everyman” Jeb Berrier as he tries to make sense of our dependence on plastic bags. Although his quest starts out small, Jeb soon learns that the problem extends past landfills to oceans, rivers and ultimately human health. The average American uses about 500 plastic bags each year, for about twelve minutes each. This single-use mentality has led to the formation of a floating island of plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean more than twice the size of Texas. The film explores these issues and identifies how our daily reliance on plastic threatens not only waterways and marine life, but human health, too. Two of the most common plastic additives are endocrine disruptors, which have been shown to link to cancer, diabetes, autism, attention deficit disorder, obesity and infertility.
Tell us about your production company, Reel Thing. What’s the underlying mission and what inspired you to create it?
Beraza: We’re sort of a two-pronged company. We have Reel Thing Productions and Reel Thing Films. Reel Thing Productions is where we’ll do some commercial work to sort of keep people employed and Reel Thing Films is the branch where we do our documentary films. Our mission really is kind of loosey-goosey but we just want to do projects that in some way are bettering the world. That’s kind of like I say, a loose mission but under that we wouldn’t do a Hollywood action-type thing, not that anyone’s running and knocking at the door asking for that. But we just want to do things that raise social consciousness in some way.
How did you get started in filmmaking?
Beraza: I was a theater director and I did that for many years and then I had an idea for a short film that I shot down in the Dominican Republic about 12 years ago. I had to learn filmmaking in order to make the film, at least a little bit, and also how to edit the film. So I went through a step where I was an editor for a long time; I was one of the first people where I lived to learn nonlinear editing. So I learned nonlinear editing and then I edited six or so similar films for another company and then branched out and did Reel Thing.
You just came out with “Bag It.” What inspired you to make this film now?
Beraza: Well the inspiration for “Bag It” was sort of a two-pronged “aha moment” inspiration. The first was, the year before I made a resolution that I’m not going to use anymore plastic bags in the store. It seems pretty simple to do. I just felt like “Wow! I’m amazing that I’m doing this,” which was so stupid. But it felt good for me that I did it and I’ve learned a lot since then. Our town, Telluride, Colorado, that following summer started a plastic bag reduction challenge against the town of Aspen to see who could reduce their use of bags the most over the course of the summer. And the winner got a prize like a solar kit for the school, so it was kind of a win-win. So I thought I’m going to do a short film about this challenge and just get a little funding from the town. So I started the short film and once I started doing research about plastic bags and plastics, it just became so obvious to me there was so much more there so I just dropped everything else and made a full on film.
Tell us about the format of the documentary. What made you chose to format it the way you did?
Beraza: I’ve worked with Jeb before in theater and so at first it was kind of an essay style documentary and I just knew that having a character would help make it more personal. At one point I thought, “well maybe I could be in it,” but I just didn’t really want to be. It was enough just to make the film then to also be the subject of the film, I didn’t want to go there. So I talked to Jeb and I just really like his style, he’s obviously really funny, he’s very quick on his feet. We do improv together; I knew he could pull it off. But he’s also really likable and I was really trying to get away from this sort of Hollywood host, the dashingly handsome man or the beautiful women, where you’re just like “please,” and don’t want to hear anything they have to say, or at least I don’t. But I just wanted someone a little more normal. The really great thing was partway through the filming, when I started to learn more and more about health, I just kind of thought “I don’t think I should have used Jeb because how is he’s going to get us into the world of infants and pregnant women?” And that day when I was talking to him when we were in New York, he goes, “Well, Ann’s pregnant.” That was just a massive gift from the documentary gods that you just hope that on every film you have that gift. And that was the gift and it was fantastic, and obviously all the way through to filming the baby being born. It was really great.
Was Jeb really active around this beforehand?
Beraza: No, not so much. He did get involved when we were doing the short film and he did the interviews with the mayor of Telluride and the mayor of Aspen. Obviously none of that made it into the film but that’s why I kind of like that whole idea that if you’re open to change in your process – you think you’re making a film about this – it really turns out to be something different, you just have to be rigidly flexible. Don’t have no plan whatsoever but know that if the story is telling you that you need to go a different way, you just have to be willing to take that risk and even though it’s uncomfortable, just jump in and see what happens.
I guess Jeb represents the average citizen then?
Beraza: In fact we kind of made a joke to have Jeb be a little clueless. So we would do all this research and sometimes we wouldn’t tell him everything we found out. Or we’d go to do an interview and we’d tell him a little about the person but then once he started delving he’d be like, “What! I can’t believe it!” because we wanted him to have that disbelieve the first time of finding out something shocking. It was kind of fun.
What do you want people to do after watching the film?
Beraza: I feel like the issue of plastic and using less of it is kind of what people maybe see on the surface, and that’s definitely a big takeaway of it. But really what it kept coming back to, if you want to be a better citizen of the planet in general, and not just plastic but in many ways – having less carbon emission, eating better on the food chain, eating locally – it all comes down to simplifying your life. And that’s why at the end, we really tried to put in that subtle message to simply your life. If you simplify your life, you’re doing so many of these things at once. So I would say that’s the major message of the film.
What outreach strategies did you implement after doing this film?
Beraza: We worked really hard on that. We hired a consultant that helped us with the whole outreach and engagement campaign. We got some funding from the Fledgling Fund so that helped us make that happen. We’ve had a lot of different tiers going on. We had a public screening campaign we did early on where a company called Film Sprout out of New York City did over 500 screenings of the film around the country, in different places. We did a pretty good film festival run and each of these screenings come with a discussion packet and information for people. This part of the film I did less of and our producer did more so I’m getting the names of the different things wrong, but we had a screener’s toolkit. We’ve also had a pretty big educational push where we signed on with New Day Films and it’s travelling quite a bit to universities, middle schools, and high schools.
We have different versions of the film. There are 45 and 65-minute version on one DVD, more for kids that get sort of the adult humor and the birth for the younger kids. And then we have the regular version. And then we have an educational curriculum packet, that’s 24 page packet that teachers can use to further studies in many different topics of the film like ocean /marine debris, chemicals in plastics, and even going into math, art, and creative writing. So it’s been a big process and it’s sort of funny because a lot of people, especially young filmmakers, feel like you finish the movie and you’re done, “Okay, lets go. Next project.” But really, if you want to do the full scope that your film can do, it’s almost like that’s maybe midpoint, when you’re absolutely finished the film. There’s just so much more that you can do if you have the right topic and you have the energy to keep going with it, which is kind of the whole point. You want as many people to see your film as possible and for as many people to be affected and impacted by your film as possible. So if you have an idea of what you can do with your outreach and engagement as you’re making the film, it just really helps you give that a big launch.
What’s the process of getting partners of board with your film?
Beraza: For partner organizations, early on we did a brainstorming session and came up with organizations we thought had issues similar to our film, people like surf rider, environmental working group, plastic pollution coalition, and there were quite a few more that I’m just blanking on right now. And then we did what’s called a partner summit. In San Francisco we had a full day meeting where everybody came to the academy of sciences, we had a room there, and we sort of just sat there and hammered out: “How can our film help you?” And that’s a big difference because a lot of filmmakers think, “how can they help me? Are they going to buy my film? Are they going to do a lot of screenings?” Sure, that’s part of the equation but if you look at it from the angle of how can we serve this organization, you’re just going to get a lot more attraction and in the end, it’s going to be more of a real partnership as oppose to, “Okay they’re going to buy 20 copies of my film.” So I’d just say approach it from that angle and then it’s going to work out. They’re going to book screenings. And the Sierra Club’s chapter is going to have a screening and you’re going to give them a discount and they’re going to buy some films. It’s all going to work out but just really going to those partners with a plan about how you can help serve them.
What can a film provide to a campaign that other media cannot?
Beraza: I think it’s such a visual tool, especially for people… So for example the state of Oregon was trying to do a plastic bag fee for the whole state. So the government of the state said, “we know our Congress (or whoever that’s making the decision), they’re not going to be able to watch the whole film but can you so something for us?” So we did a five-minute piece that was specifically for Oregon and they all watched it. It didn’t end up passing; it was kind of a revolutionary bill that was on the table, they had been the only state. But I guess what I’m getting to is that it’s so much quicker for someone to grasp the issue than just seeing a lot of facts and figures on a page. It’s just like another way of looking at the issue. You can read it, you can see it, you can hear about it, and [film] adds that other piece into the pie of the way they’re gathering the information. I think that if people see images of plastic bags and animals being entangled or if they actually see some of these things that are happening – or the albatross, when you see that’s actually our crap inside that bird – people get it a lot more than just skimming a page and reading that this is a problem. They say never underestimate the power of film to change the world. Visual media can have an incredible potential, we just have to be wise with it.
What do you think the key is for social change and action?
Beraza: With “Bag It” what we really tried to do was to add humor. That was our goal from the very beginning. We would joke around like, “Mary Poppins: just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. We’ve got to ease people in before we whack them over the head and tell them we’re in a big mess.” So I think that’s one component. Sure, scare tactics works but it’s nice to also have it like, “you can do this! It’s not that bad,” and just simple things people can do. I know for me, personally, I sometimes get frustrated when I see a film and it’s like “And write your Congressman.” I know some films are like that because the issue is so broad, such a huge thing, that it’s sort of like, well what can you do? But I like it if there are little chunks, little things that people can just go, “I can do that and I can try that as well.” So I think as filmmakers we have to look at the picture and try to figure out what are the things that people can actually accomplish so they don’t watch your entire film and at the end they’re just like, “well, great, but how am I going to change global warming or climate change? What the hell am I going to do?” So making that clear, that there’s something that everybody can do.
How would you respond to the school of thought that explains that people who watch documentaries sometimes just do what the documentary suggests and then don’t move further?
Beraza: I feel that unless people care on a small level, they’re not going to care on a big level. I feel like most major changes that have happened in the world have started on the very individual level, look at Gandhi. I mean, obviously we’re not on that level at all but it’s very rare that it trickles down from the top down; it has to trickle up. So if you get people that really care on a small level, then they go to their city council. And we’ve seen examples of this, even with “Bag It” which is just a little movie about a smallish world issue. But if that one person goes to their town council and before you know it they’re passing something and then this entire school is now not doing any plastics and then the city of San Francisco, which we sent the film to a long time ago, they just passed a much stronger policy for their city, and now the state of California is considering it.
So I just feel like it’s a ripple up effect more than a ripple down. At least that’s how I believe it is. But if you can’t get individuals to care, then when it comes down from “the man,” they’re not even going to buy into it. They’re like, “why are we even doing this stupid thing?” But if the people say, “No, this is what we want,” I feel like it is easier and then the government can say: “this is what the people want so we need to change this.” And I really feel that it’s several levels of responsibility. It’s individual responsibility, corporate responsibility, and government. And it’s getting people in all of those arenas fired up about it. Like I was saying, it’s the same thing with corporations. We have people contacting us saying, “We’re changing the way our company is doing business. We’re no longer packaging things in so many crazy layers.” I feel like if you just get somebody with a personal story that it can really relate.
What are some of the challenges of incorporating statistics in your film and making those numbers matter?
Beraza: I think especially in sort of an information heavy film like “Bag It” is, motion graphics are usually very important because you hear it, but you have to kind of see it as well. I think another really effective tool is giving a frame of reference. So you can say, “that would be enough bags to go around the world three times,” and people would kind of go, “Oh!” Something that would make them understand. One [phrase] we almost put in the film was how many tons of plastic was entering the ocean everyday, and it was going to be something like so many whales in weight, just so that people can kind of get an idea of like, “okay I can understand that.” People get very complacent of large numbers they don’t understand which is… there’s a fantastic photographer who we interview in the film, Chris Jordan, who does Running the Numbers, and that is his big thing. It’s really easy to hear two million birds this or a million dolphins that, and you’re just like, “okay that’s a lot, bummer.” But if you see it in an art form – and he does it with large-scale photography – all of a sudden you kind of go, “crap, that’s a lot!” So if anybody hasn’t’ checked him out, I would check out chrisjordan.com. It’s pretty shocking.
You seem to have a lot of influential people in your film. What is their involvement after the film? Do they promote the cause?
Beraza: I think it’s sort of a symbiotic relationship where we try to promote what they’re doing and visa-versa. It’s not like an overt thing where we’re like, “Annie, are you pushing our film? We’re pushing your films.” It’s more just sort of a friendly thing. We’ll call each other to ask advice for different things, like, “Who do you think we should reach out to for this?” Chris Jordan has become very active on marine debris and now he did a whole albatross sequence and now he’s doing a whole film on midway that will be coming out pretty soon. So, I like to think that we all inspire each other. He’s now taking a couple of years going in this direction. It’s nice…It’s great to have other people that are doing similar work that you can share ideas with. What I really love about this kind of work and documentary filmmaking is that it’s, to me, much more… give a helping hand and partner, and what can I do to help you. While I think a lot of other types of work out there are like, “out of my way, I’m climbing this ladder. I’ll use your shoulders and step on your head. But I’m going up,” while this is more embracing. It’s really nice.
What advice do you have for new/aspiring filmmakers?
Beraza: I guess really think through what you’re trying to say and why you’re trying to say it and how you’re going to tell the story because you can have all the best intentions in the world but if you don’t have a clear vision of how to tell the story that people are actually going to see it, there might be another way to get that information out there that isn’t going to cause you two to three years of work, quite a bit of fundraising efforts. So if you’re incredibly passionate about it and this is it and you’re doing it, then absolutely go for it and just don’t give up. Don’t take no for an answer. It takes incredible tenacity and patience because you’ll get turned down again, and again, and again. If you just drop out at the first person that says no then you obviously maybe don’t have the spine for the job because you get turned down a lot. I guess that would be it. Once you picture that you know you’re doing the right topic, just don’t back down. But stay positive about it.
What advice would you give to young filmmakers on funding?
Beraza: For fundraising advice that I would give to filmmakers is, the best thing you could do is make your film low budget but with high production value. The less you spend, the less you have to be caught in that stage of the process. If you’re a student, you have a lot of resources you can use. You’ve got cameras, you’ve got friends, you’ve got the gear, you’re obviously not paying yourself, so go as low budget as possible. And then when you start to go for funding, what’s worked for us is to start with something small, maybe a kick-starter campaign or a small grant that’s easier to get or a local grant and then slowly start stepping out to bigger foundations and grants. I always give the advice to filmmakers to watch the credits of films similar to yours to see who they’re getting funding from and just write a list. I mean, I spend more time in the credits, a lot of times, than in the film I feel like it’s kind of a catch 22 and it’s really annoying but once you start to raise some money and get some grants, then you start getting more. It’s like no one wants to be first. It’s really awful. But we just got our second grant for our new film and I just know that now it’s going to become easier but the beginning is just like, “no, no, no.” You just start to go, “Oh there’s another on,” and you just can’t let it get you down. You just have to know that you’re in it for the long haul and not the short haul. Just take it all in stride and stay positive and keep going.
What about your partner organizations? Did they give you any money?
Beraza: No, we felt pretty strongly — and this is kind of getting into the whole ethics thing — but we really didn’t want to take any money when we were making “Bag It,” and the same would be true for “Uranium Drive In,” from any organization that it looked like it could be a conflict of interest. So, if we had the plastic industry, and we actually had the plastic industry offer to give us a hundred thousand dollars, and I thought about it for about two hours thinking, “Oh that would be so great! They say we can still tell our story. I wonder if they mean it?” But the same would be true if a big environmental organization said: “Can we give you a bunch of money. We’re going to give you your own creative control but that part where you say this, do you really havev to say it like that? Maybe you can kind of change it a little.” And I think it’s so easy to go: “That’s true. That’s not a biggie.” But it’s kind of a slippery slope. I like to get funding from organizations that have less to do with your specific subject matter and just more broad, giving, organization where they donate to social issues. It’s tricky.
What are you currently working on?
Beraza: We are in the midst of production for a new documentary film called “Uranium Drive In”. It is about the first uranium mill to be built in the country in over 25 years. It’s a proposal on the table right now and its only 50 miles from where I live. It’s creating a lot of controversy in the town right near where they’d be building it and also in surrounding towns. People are either dead-set for it or completely dead-set against it. And it’s just beautiful country so it’s really fun to just kind of slow down and have landscapes and just getting to know different people, really different people.