Ubiquitous plastic bag sparks film to be shown in Yakima

YAKIMA — Chances are if you went into a rabbit hole — or, these days, just about any nook or cranny on the planet — you might find that most ubiquitous illustration of Americans’ allegiance to convenience: a plastic bag.

Documentary filmmaker Suzan Beraza did the reverse. She started with the plastic bag.

“Initially I was just thinking of doing a short film between projects,” Beraza said of the project that turned into “Bag It,” her first full-length documentary that will have a special screening featuring its on-camera star Thursday at Yakima Valley Community College.

“But after doing all this research and kind of going down the rabbit hole, we started to realize there’s a lot more to this story than we thought.”

The story Beraza initially had in mind was a little tale about a “plastic bag rejection challenge” between two small Colorado towns, Telluride (where Beraza lives) and Aspen.

But the more she learned about this country’s dependence on plastic and the environmental and health concerns related to many plastic items — including, yes, bags — the deeper she went into that proverbial rabbit hole.

“I guess I considered myself at the time as being relatively environmentally aware and health-conscious. I’m a mother,” said Beraza, sister of Yakima schools Superintendent Elaine Beraza. “So I was just pretty surprised upon doing research how much more there was to the issue than I knew.

“And I guess I figured if I didn’t know, a lot of people didn’t know.”

Beraza enlisted as her on-camera talent Jeb Berrier, then a Telluride television personality with an expressive personality and a comedic flair. Berrier, who will be in Yakima for Thursday’s screening and educational events at Gilbert Elementary School and Eisenhower High School, went through a similar intellectual and emotional awakening during the making of “Bag It,” especially when he found out during filming his wife was pregnant.

“That was one of those moments where I started becoming a lot more passionate about it,” said Berrier about learning about such things as phthalates, a petroleum-based chemical used to give plastic its pliability.

“It’ll make plastic soft and rubbery, but it also acts as a hormone blocker. So when you get phthalates in a developing fetus,” Berrier said, “it affects the development.

“And pregnant women are exposed to these things through all kinds of products they use.”

Beraza often filmed Berrier doing his research and interviews to capture his honest reactions — “A lot of times,” she noted, “he’d get incredulous” — so film audiences would experience the same sense of discovery. “He’s not this Hollywood type; he’s the guy next door,” Beraza said. “And that’s what I wanted the film to have, this average guy kind of going through this journey.”

That wide-eyed curiosity, rather than a heavily scientific approach, is part of why the film has won a dozen film-festival awards and been broadcast numerous times on such networks as PBS and the Discovery Channel. It comes across in the same vein of such entertainingly accessible documentaries as Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” and Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” and “Sicko.”

“That’s actually the model we were following, the Morgan Spurlock-Michael Moore type of school of thought: Add humor and tackle a serious subject.

“This topic could be really deadly if you handle it in too dry or academic a way.”

Berrier said the film also enables audience members to come away with some hope, “not have it be a complete downer.

“People can walk away from the film and immediately know, ‘There’s a couple of things I can do starting right now in my own life that can make a difference.’

“It’s that simple.”