Suzan Beraza, creative mind behind our film of the month BAG IT!, has set out to document what really moves the world – the important stories of our time. Originally a theater director, she was drawn to the camera in the late 1990’s. What started out rather spontaneously launched an impressive career in documentary directing and editing. With a focus on social and environmental issues, Suzan’s films have won people over on national public television and at many festivals, earning top awards. This well intentioned, likeable filmmaker is on a journey to better the world and we’re happy to join her.
What is it that draws you to documentary film?
As they say, the truth really is stranger than fiction. There are such amazingly fascinating true stories and characters out in the world beyond what one could conjure up as fiction. While I would like to do a full-length fiction film in the future (I have already done a few fiction short films), I am happily exploring the documentary genre for the next several years.
What is your own history with documentaries? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?
I have definitely focused to date on films that focus on either the environment or human rights issues, perhaps because I am a bit of a “Pollyanna” and believe in the power of film as a catalyst to affect change. I have learned this about myself: there are so many films and external stimuli out in the world that do nothing for the betterment of the human condition. While “mindless entertainment” has its time and place (hey, I love melting into my couch after a long day watching something that doesn’t require much thought), I want to figure out a way to make films that benefit society while still being entertaining.
Is your experience with BAG IT! like any of the other filmmaking experience you have had? Was there anything that stood out about the experience?
I never went to film school. BAG IT! was my feature-length directing debut, though I had worked as an editor on several environmental/human rights documentary films. I feel that being naïve and not realizing how hard it is to make a film saved me; I didn’t ever stop to think that it wasn’t possible. From the very beginning, our biggest challenge was to try and figure out how to make a film that average people would be drawn to and want to watch. Our mantra became “accessible,” and we decided that humor was the best way to make that happen. We also had to figure out when to not be funny or cute. When you’re staring into the gut of a dead albatross filled with our plastic waste, that’s not the time to crack a joke.
A huge surprise for us with how viral the film became. It has been broadcast in over 20 countries. We are a small company and this was our first feature-length film, so we really had no idea what to expect. I think because the film is fun and not preachy, it just took off.
BAG IT! is eye-opening in a very funny, non-radical way. This seems to easily motivate people to take action on a daily basis – just like “everyman” Jeb Berrier. (Some of our team members have actually introduced a fine for every member of their household that leaves the supermarket with one more plastic bag after watching your film.) How did you decide to make a film together with Jeb and how did the story of the film develop?
Jeb really is adorable and nerdy, and that is exactly why I chose him to play the part of an everyman. I wanted someone that audiences could relate to, someone you felt like you’d love to have over for dinner. During shooting, I would often not tell Jeb the information I already had so that he was discovering it with the audience. I directed theater before making this film, so I knew how important it is to create the illusion of the first time—that sense that this is the first time that he is finding out about something—where it really feels like he, and in turn the audience, is making a discovery. I had worked with Jeb in theater and knew that he had the charm, sensibility and improvisational skills to be an excellent protagonist. Part way through making the film, Jeb’s partner, Anne, got pregnant. From that moment on, I knew that a very important shift had been made in the film to where the impacts of chemicals in plastics on humans became relevant to the story. We also knew that we had an ending to the film!
What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Is there some fact that people react most strongly to?
As the film has showed in over 1500 schools, amongst our younger viewers I would say that the ocean segment of the film really resonates. The students respond to seeing sea mammals and birds impacted by plastic entanglement and ingestion. It seems that our older viewers, perhaps because as an adult you begin to understand your own mortality, really grasp the impacts of plastic and chemicals on human health. Many already have children, or are planning on having them, and are shocked at these impacts, particularly on fetuses and young children.
Often after watching documentaries, people wonder what the one most important thing they can do is. What is this one thing you would recommend to someone after watching Bag It!?
The easiest step is to cut down on your use of those pesky “single-use disposables.” Bring your own. Make your own to-go kit with your reusable water bottle, mug, dish and silverware. It is really fun to go to take out places with your own dishes; you get great comments! To overcome inertia, try it first for one day, then a week. After that it becomes habit.
A more profound step is to actually become a leader and an activist. There are all sorts of causes out there that need a champion. This is why we have this Margaret Mead quote in the film, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
What would your playlist of documentary favorites consist of?
Wow… I love so many documentaries and don’t want to short any that I’m not thinking of at the moment, but here goes with a few of my favorites: Sicko, Roger & Me (I love Michael Moore’s huge “balls”), The Thin Blue Line (and many other Errol Morris films); Exit Through the Gift Shop; Stories We Tell; Murderball; Mad Hot Ballroom; Born Into Brothels; Marwencol; The Overnighters; King of Kong; Harlan County, USA; American Movie; Capturing the Friedmans.
BAG IT! is Influence Film Club’s featured film for August. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together. Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to Influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.
Interview by: Julia Bier