A new pair of niche political documentaries, Fresh and Bag It, are available this month from DocuRama films, a distribution company that won my heart several years ago with their reissue of the ‘70s religious documentary Marjoe. Both Fresh and Bag It deal with environmental issues and suffer mainly from being derivative and redundant, although Fresh’s earnest approach makes it the slightly more watchable of the two.
Commercially speaking, political documentaries peaked about ten years ago with the huge theatrical success of Bowling for Columbine, and to a lesser degree, An Inconvenient Truth. The popularity of the genre spun off a slew of low-budget, straight-to-DVD entries in the years that followed, some of which were compelling and informative. Less skilled renderings, however, often backslide into alarmist freakshow territory, or simply begin to feel like repetitive excuses for personal grandstanding. The paradox of political documentaries is that they’re meant to educate and energize outsiders, but their strongest audience is inevitably people who are already converts, and want to see their own perspectives acknowledged and validated.
Bag It and Fresh rely on different narrative approaches, both inspired by accomplished forerunners – Bag It is a strenuously humorous indictment of plastics and their possible effect on human health and the environment, while Fresh’s treatment is more straightforward and dramatic, dealing with organic alternatives to industrialized farming.
Of the two films, Fresh is more interesting to watch, probably because it resigns itself so blissfully to a subjective, personal take on the issue without ever making any serious effort to address the fine print. The film mainly consists of one-on-one interview footage with organic ranchers and farmers, some of whom have experience with industrialized farming techniques and have consciously chosen to eschew them, and some of whom have been committed practically since birth to traditional, down-and-dirty, natural farming techniques. Some manage to run farms for profit, others are spearheading nonprofit organic farming collectives designed to provide inexpensive organic produce to urban communities. Even if you’re not on the same page with them ideologically, it’s hard not to at least be interested in people who seem so committed and passionate about doing something so unorthodox with their lives.
Fresh’s two major weaknesses are that it doesn’t address major concerns about organic farming as a large-scale solution to food industrialization (the biggest drawback, at least according to some people, is that organic farming alone could never produce enough food to support the entire world population), and like many other topical documentaries, it fails to sustain a convincing narrative arc. The movie eventually starts to feel like a lot of random interview footage spliced together with no unifying objective, other than to provide a platform for organic farmers to talk about their work.
Bag It, on the other hand, is riddled with problems, starting with its environmentally friendly DVD packaging, which is awkwardly constructed out of cardboard and “PaperFoam,” and delivered to the consumer literally taped together to prevent it from falling apart (savor those initial, delectable moments of physical cohesion, by the way, because once you peel the tape off that thing, it will never fully retain its shape again).
The film itself is glaringly derivative of Michael Moore, right down to the smarmy male protagonist, Jeb Berrier (who, bizarrely, is not even the film’s director). It includes sarcastically narrated found-footage montages, a running gag about Jeb’s inability to get in touch with major chemical company representatives a la Roger and Me, trite armchair psychoanalysis about the shallowness of American consumerism, and a strange, shoehorned subplot about Jeb’s wife becoming pregnant, giving them both an excuse to simper into the camera about how much landfill waste they can personally avoid by using cloth diapers instead of disposable ones.
The real tragedy of Bag It is that it actually makes some compelling points about its subject, yet the presentation is so grating and insufferable that it will make you want to consume more plastic than you were consuming already, just to get back at the filmmakers. Rather than being plucky and whimsical, it just feels lame, condescending, and forced.
I can’t honestly recommend either of these two films for purchase, but Fresh is at least worth watching, especially if you have any particular interest in organic farming or food alternatives. It’s at least an interesting assemblage of character studies, whereas Bag It pretty much belongs in the trash (or I guess, if you’re a stickler, the recycling bin).