Bob Nesson, Mobilizing Change through Documentaries

Still from "Power to the Pedals"

Photo by Sue Edwards

By Dakota Damschroder

What happens when you combine a desire to clean up the neighborhood and a knowledge of welding? Human-powered garbage trucks built from bicycles.

This is the topic of filmmaker and Emerson professor Bob Nesson’s latest short documentary, Power to the Pedals: Wenzday Jane and the Culture of Change.

“She operates out of my neighborhood and we met, somehow,” says Nesson. “Over a period of years, I had the idea that she would be a great subject for a film.”

Jane has the only municipal contract in the country to pick up public area recycling with human-powered cargo bikes instead of diesel-powered trucks. Nesson sees this as an important change.

“Cargo trucks cost a quarter of a million dollars,” he noted. Cutting down on diesel saves money while also reducing the carbon footprint.

Since its premiere in March of this year, the film has become a platform for discussing the importance of reshaping cities in a more environmentally friendly way. The weekend of November 6th, the documentary aired at the New Urbanism Film Festival in Los Angeles.

“The point was to showcase and discuss the films that touch upon issues related to the reshaping of our cities in terms of the transportation, infrastructure, and other topics,” said Nesson, who sat on a panel with other scholars after the screening.

“We talked about how bicycles can be used to reduce the carbon footprint,” he said. “These are the same conversations used time and time again across the country.”

This topic is not Nesson’s only passion; his award-winning work encompasses war, politics, economics, the environment, urban issues, art, history, and science. As producer and director, cinematographer and editor, he has worked on hundreds of documentary films, programs, and commissioned videos. His most memorable include A Bridge Between Cultures, which focuses on two sculptures from different countries and the people who overcame a language barrier to collaborate on this project, and From Santo Domingo with Love, a story about a young boy from the title city immigrating to the United States and learning to live in a region and culture extremely different from his own.

But Nesson’s work does not end once the lights come up. He will continue using Power to the Pedals to facilitate a conversation about changing the environment. The first week of February 2015, the town of Brookline will have its Climate Acton Week, and on February 3rd, Nesson’s film will play at the Coolidge Corner Theater, followed by a panel. Power to the Pedals has been used within classes at Harvard Law School to spark dialogues on environmental law, social enterprise and entrepreneurialism, and Nesson will bring his students to Harvard in the spring semester to see how documentary films can be used in educational settings.

This film’s content is close to Nesson’s heart.

“I’m an avid bicyclist,” he laughed. “My bike has a trailer that can carry a pretty sizeable amount of film gear. I have studded snow tires.”

“We want to get people out of their SUVs,” he joked. “We want people to bike, to walk.” Given the recognition the film is receiving and its growing number of viewers, that goal seems within reach.

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