Garbage Warrior

Garbage Warrior


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

"To build a house you need bricks", Peter Sellers’ idiot savant character remarked in the 1979 classic Being There. He’d obviously never met Michael Reynolds, eco-pioneer and hero of Oliver Hodge’s captivating documentary.

Ever since graduating as an architect, Reynolds has delighted in taking an unconventional, experimental approach to his craft – using materials like beer cans and used car tyres to create solar-powered, water and sewage-recycling homes that cost virtually nothing to run and leave a dormouse-sized carbon footprint.

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Much of his effort has gone into creating a community of ‘Earthship’ houses, bizarrely-shaped structures which used the heat trapped in the soil-filled tyres and beer cans as insulation that withstood even the sub-zero temperatures of the high country near Taos, New Mexico.

Like-minded folk journeyed there to live in the first houses and help him build more, while sympathetic local officials turned a blind eye to his disregard for conventional methods – and the state’s building regulations . But in the 90s a new broom at the planning office noticed that none of the buildings were connected to the centralised utilities and therefore in breach of just about every rule in the book.

Ignoring Reynolds’ argument that that was the whole point, they prohibited him from building any more Earthships and took away his architect’s licence. Some people would have thrown in the trowel and gone back to designing shopping malls or gherkin-shaped office blocks. But Reynolds, a beguiling mix of hippy idealism and stubborn bloody-mindedness, is determined to carry on.

He drafts a bill allowing his community to be designated a “sustainable building test site” and submits it to the state legislature. But this proves to be a tortuous, frustrating process where, despite gaining some allies at City Hall, the bill runs out of time due to procedural delaying tactics.

It seems his vision has no future – but out of the blue comes a request for help from a community in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, recently devastated by the Asian Tsunami. They don’t care about bureaucracy or the struggle between big business and the individual – they just want shelter, and quick.

Reynolds takes his veteran crew to India and they meet a community receptive to his ideas and willing to work 24/7 to make them reality. This section provides some of the film’s most moving moments, as people devastated by a horror worse than any we can imagine talk of losing entire families, but devote all their energy, skill and resourcefulness to building new homes from little more than mud and empty water bottles.

The community takes Reynolds to their hearts – and back in America, Hurricane Katrina has shown that the power of nature can bring a modern city to its knees. All of a sudden, his long-held views on global warming and the need to think of alternatives before it’s too late appear prescient and necessary. He finds himself in demand for rebuilding projects much closer to home – and decides to give his bill another try...

It’s a cracking tale, and Hodge has a compelling character as its protagonist. Reynolds is a shock-haired ball of energy, overflowing with ideas and opinions about the future of the earth, the relationship between architecture and big business and the nature of America itself. As he points out, the country was founded on the principle of making your own home, and your own destiny, with whatever materials you could find and harness; he sees his methods as an extension of that.

He and his community are definitely from the alternative end of the spectrum, but they’re most definitely not the fey, unworldly layabouts of popular stereotype. The sheer amount of hard graft (often in hostile conditions) they put into trying to make their way of life work is remarkable, and inspiring. When Reynolds is forced to tie back his hair, put on a suit and tackle a bureaucratic machine whose default setting seems to be inertia, you sense how much of an effort it is – and you’re willing him to succeed.

Eschewing Michael Moore-esque gimmicks or editorialising (there isn’t even a voiceover) Hodge is confident and clever enough to let the story tell itself, letting a few key images (the island children playing with Reynolds’ workers in the ruins of their village; state senators falling asleep as the first bill is filibustered to extinction) make his points.

It may not have you heading for the New Forest with a crate full of empties, but you will leave the cinema thankful that there are people like Michael Reynolds about – willing to challenge any status quo and put every ounce of their energy into working for what they believe in.

Reviewed on: 08 May 2008
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Maverick architect Michael Reynolds has spent years building eco-friendly ‘sustainable’ homes in New Mexico. Just as the state authorities crack down, a call for help comes from an island hit by the Asian Tsunami.
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Director: Oliver Hodge

Starring: Michael Reynolds

Year: 2007

Runtime: 86 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


EIFF 2007

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