Film of the week

Garbage Warrior: 86 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Oliver Hodge. Starring: Michael Reynolds

Scene from Garbage Warrior - building an Earthship in the Andaman Islands

During the decade prior to directing his feature debut, Oliver Hodge worked in the art departments on such blockbusters as Judge Dredd, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and the James Bond film Die Another Day.

A no-frills documentary about an eccentric environmentalist may seem a world away from these monolithic 'event' movies. But in Garbage Warrior, Hodge attempts to cut his subject from the same larger-than-life cloth as those films' colossal heroes.

Michael Reynolds is an architectural maverick who, for 30 years, has been designing and building self-sufficient housing from recaptured garbage. His materials of choice include empty beer cans, plastic and glass bottles, and old tyres packed tight with dirt.

Various designs harness solar or wind power for energy. He often utilises a 'greenhouse' approach to heating, angling glass windows towards the sun. The houses are fitted for capturing rainwater, and for growing vegetables and rearing livestock.

It's little wonder publicists are badging Garbage Warrior as 'stirring and timely'. Arriving at a time when phrases like 'climate change' and 'sustainable energy' have become part of the lexicon, the documentary plays to public concerns about how we might best reduce our environmental impact, and to fears that the expiry date for 'life as we know it' is already fast-approaching.

As the title suggests, Hodge has pitched the film at least in part as a David and Goliath drama. Reynolds believes ideas evolve through making mistakes. Thus his houses, dubbed 'Earthships', have evolved during decades of trial and error. His renegade practice of learning through getting things wrong has seen him at odds with formal architectural bodies in the USA.

In Garbage Warrior Reynolds goes up against government bodies in an attempt to gain legitimacy for a process he describes as 'dreaming' of solutions to the climate crisis — basically, building stuff, and seeing if it works.

In this regard the film is a one-sided affair. While it is tempting to entertain Reynolds' underdog cynicism towards the brick-wall bureaucracy he encounters at government level, realists will realise there are likely to be unspoken, well-intended health and safety concerns behind the existing building regulations. Both Hodge and Reynolds give short shrift to counter-arguments, whether they be persuasive or otherwise.

Reynolds is certainly not your typical, benevolent crusader. He openly confides that his motives are not altruistic. He sees himself as a kind of catcher in the rye, who is driven less by his concern for others than by fear that he might be dragged off the cliff by the environmentally negligent stampede.

In fact he's not even entirely likeable. At one stage he scoffs at archeologists who first 'walk around picking up spearheads' before he can be allowed to develop a New Mexico property. For Australians, currently engaged in the ongoing process of reconciliation between Indigenous and white inhabitants, Reynolds' apparent indifference towards the native cultures that preceded his mini eco-empire smack of racial prejudice.

Nonetheless, Reynolds is a compelling and charismatic character. One of the film's most affecting sequences comes during its final act, when Reynolds and his rag-tag mob of workers travel to the Tsunami-affected Andaman Islands to build Earthships for the devastated community.

It comes late in the film, but this sequence provides a focal point for all that has gone before it. It's as if this endeavour is the end result of years of Earthship evolution, and it provides a meaningful counterpoint to Reynolds' vain attempts at legitimising his methods in his home country.

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Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and ASif. He is a contributor to the volume American Exorcist: Critical Essays on William Peter Blatty. Email Tim

Topic tags: tim kroenert, garbage warrior, michael reynolds, sustainable housing, earthship, andaman island relief



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