Artists Find Beauty in an Environmental Disaster in 'One Plastic Beach'

"The opposite of beauty is not ugly. The opposite of beauty is indifference. And we're trying not to be indifferent about this." This charming short documentary follows two artists, Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang, as they salvage washed-up pieces of plastic from a Northern California beach and transform them into art. Documentary filmmaker Eric Slatkin discusses the making of the film in an interview with The Atlantic.  

"The opposite of beauty is not ugly. The opposite of beauty is indifference. And we're trying not to be indifferent about this." -- Richard Lang

This charming short documentary follows two artists, Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang, as they salvage washed-up pieces of plastic from a Northern California beach and transform them into art. It's a look at the overwhelming environmental problem of discarded plastic in the Pacific Ocean, and an archeology of the tiny trivial objects we use and discard without ever thinking about. It's also a "love story" -- the couple began collecting plastic on their first date at the beach. 

Documentary filmmaker Eric Slatkin discusses the making of the film in an interview below. 

The Atlantic: How did you get into documentary filmmaking?

Eric Slatkin: I had done some work for PBS while living in DC, but really started shooting documentary while at CHOW.com. Along with our how-to videos, I was able to help develop a few documentary series there. One was called The Obsessives, which were short (10 minute or so) profiles of people in the food world who day in and day out are crafting and creating within the food world. So we profiled people that specialize in pickling, jams and marmalades, knife making, seaweed harvesting, and a school lunch chef who’s leading the charge to have nutritious food in our schools. Being able to step into their shoes, learn about their work and how they operate is inspiring, and is one of the primary reasons I like documentary so much.

How did you find the Langs and end up shooting this documentary? 

A friend and the producer of the film, Tess Thackara, had learned about the Langs through the local art scene (the couple own and operate the Electric Works Gallery) and had met them at an event one evening at the Brower Center, which is a hub of environmental think tanks and organizations located in Berkeley. Tess and I were speaking about projects to work on, and the Langs seemed perfect. They are passionate artists who have beautifully blended environmentalism with their artwork, not to mention, they're a completely adorable couple.

Your shooting approach is very simple and restrained, but it really lets your subjects shine through. Are there any films or filmmakers that influenced your style?

In terms of style, I guess people would lump it in with cinéma vérité or direct cinema. For me, it's kind of a no-brainer to let the subjects in your film drive the narrative, because I want it to connect and provide the most intimate relationship between the viewer and the person on screen as possible. That being said, I don't believe in the objective ability of direct cinema. Even though you are just letting the cameras capture what happens in the production, the narrative is truly shaped during the edit, which incorporates a good deal of subjectivity. Not the least of which is making the subjects look positive and intriguing (though people like the Langs make an editor's job pretty easy).

What are you working on now?

High Beam is partnering with ForageSF to profile vendors from the Underground Market. These young, energetic foodcrafters are making all kinds of amazing things, often out of their home kitchens, and selling on the street, at pop-up dinners, and at the (soon to be coming back) Underground Market.

My other work deals with the cultural impacts of technology, and I'm developing a new series which seeks out the places in which the ability to communicate with others still doesn't exist. And I am also running a project called Heart 2 Heart, which asks people to have a video conversation with their phones to discuss their mutual relationship. It's an exercise aimed to help us become more aware of the impacts of technology on our daily lives. For more info, visit haveaheartoheartwith.me.

For more videos by Eric Slatkin, visit http://www.hitthehighbeam.com/. To see more work by Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang, visit http://www.beachplastic.com/.

Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.

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