It was a sunny afternoon, and the temperature was finally starting to inch upwards of ten degrees when I met Kris Kaczor and David Regos. Director and Producer respectively of Hot Docs 2014 feature Divide in Concord, they met me at TIFF Bell Lightbox for a quick chat before the second screening of their film. Taken with the distinct Twin Peaks vibe of the LUMA Lounge on the second floor, we sat down in a set of plush seats at the back of the empty room.
“The New York Times article is where I first heard about Jean Hill,” Kaczor tells me. “I reached out to her and I feared, when I first read it, that this interesting story would be lost to history.” Originally intending to make a short video on the subject, following up on a piece the New York Times had published the year prior by Abby Goodnough, the project slowly grew. “Jean said ‘why don’t you film a feature documentary on it instead,” Kaczor continued, “because we’re going back and trying again,’ since they’d lost the year prior. And that was about it.”
This was the perfect time to focus on Jean and her crusade. This was the third, and potentially final, time she and her colleagues were attempting to ban plastic water bottles from Concord, Massachusetts. Their goal was to pass a bill that would ban personal-sized plastic water bottles from the town. Specifically, the bill would ban polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles less than 1 liter (34 oz) in size that contained water – sparkling and flavoured water need not apply. Not to be sold in cases or vending machines, although the sale of the same sized bottles of different materials would be allowed. Baby steps.
As depicted in the film, Jean’s plans were met with hostility. Badgered and bullied by some local small business owners, and the now infamous Adriana Cohen, she had the Constitution thrown in her face. It seemed this revolutionary town refused to shift. But Jean and colleague Jill Appel were determined, and it paid off. The bill passed with a 39-vote difference in favour of the change. After two attempts to rescind the bill, most resistance has stopped, with the opposition inadvertently causing more people to shift to the other side of the argument.
Throughout the film it’s made clear that Jean hopes this event will be the drop in the pond creating greater ripples of change. Since the bill passed, and because of her efforts, Concord has become a catalyst for a shifting social consciousness. “In San Francisco,” David Regos adds, “they’ve banned [plastic bottles] at public events, and they actually contacted Concord, as well. Concord has become almost like a consultant for other towns and organizations that are taking an interest in this.”
“Harvard students voted amongst themselves to ban bottled water shortly after Concord,” Kaczor contributed.“They’re getting letters from all over,” Regos adds. “They got one from a fourth grader in Texas who started doing research in Civics class on strange laws happening all around the country and the world. So there’s a lot going on, and Concord is definitely that middle drop. The rings are starting to spread.”
A movement of this magnitude risks backfiring. I don’t think I’m alone in worrying that a change like this might not stick in the long run. Kaczor eloquently adds on the subject “I think if people are given the opportunity to have a democratic platform where they do choose to ban something like bottled water, then it could be an ongoing trend and very much the opposite if, as a community, they do not.”
“That’s our standpoint,” Kaczor continues, “we’re not taking sides. We’re presenting what happened. This [change] is maybe a bit easier since it’s a smaller town; it’s very politically active in their town meeting structure, whereas in a larger city there are many other competing agendas. And so it’s a statement that concord created, and I think time will tell whether it will be able to be replicated in other contexts.”
“[O]ver all what this is about,” Regos interjects, “is consumers and a community […] deciding what kind of products they want, and what kind of products they don’t want. What this has done is made a statement saying that this is a product that we don’t want. And I think that if society at large decides that, for any reason […] it’s something that we don’t want then we start to see changes in the way that products are packaged or marketed. In Concord now you can get water in boxes and glass […]. So I think it does stick, in a way that reflects what consumers want.”
In spite of her impact, Jean remains humble on the subject. “I went [to Concord] last Sunday,” Kaczor explains, “to speak to her about it and I don’t think she’s really keeping up on the whole picture. I think she’ll ultimately be recognized as the person who spearheaded this movement.”
Jean’s health hasn’t been great since we last saw her, having broken a hip recently. When asked if she’s content to live in the success of this bill, Kaczor recounts that the feisty octogenarian shows zero signs of slowing down. “She said ‘I’m not done with my journey. I’m going back to Town Meeting next year to ban plastic bags.’”
Regos cheerfully adds, “that’s the sequel!”