By Caitlin Zera                                                              January 12, 2016

Divide in Concord is the perfect documentary film for anyone who wants to get fired up about local politics and the power of grassroots citizen action. The documentary follows Jean Hill, an elderly resident of Concord, Massachusetts, who leads a multi-year effort to get the town to ban single-serve bottled water.

Divide in Concord

Directed by Kris Kaczor

Runtime: 82 minutes, 2014

Divide in Concord works particularly well as an inspirational piece for activists looking to be realistically re-energized in campaigns against corporate tyranny, but it also has the ability to draw out poignant conversations about the realities of political bureaucracy, the meaning of patriotism, and the difficulties of confronting everyday convenience consumerism and corporate propaganda. I viewed the film at a community screening with an audience of about 100 people which proved to be an ideal way to experience the film.

The film illustrates the kind of intergenerational environmental activism that is becoming increasingly important to the success of social movement campaigns.  Hill is inspired to act after her grandson tells her about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the unprecedented amount of plastic entering the ocean. Where Hill’s grandson plugs her into a realm of the world wide web and instantaneous digital information, she demonstrates to him and the community the importance of on-the-ground grassroots citizen engagement, which still holds as the backbone of social change.

Hill goes door to door in neighborhoods across Concord, gathering signatures to introduce a bill banning single-serve plastic water bottles. As her campaign gains momentum, she rallies a group of core activists comprised of concerned parents, shopkeepers, and high school students.

The film does not shy away from the grassroots campaign’s difficulties in getting residents and the city council to respond to their demand for action. When their bill is defeated, Hill and her compatriots return to the city council year after year.  They also face immense challenges combating corporate communications that attempt to sway residents with misinformation. The film features a particularly painful scene in which Hill calls into a radio program to discuss the bill, only to be aggressively shut down and shut out by the host and a pro-single-serve water bottle publicist. Her exasperation is heartbreakingly excruciating, and if you’re watching with an audience of activists, the shared frustration amongst the crowd is sure to be palpable.

Divide in Concord does play more to the “glocal” (think globally, act locally) approach to social, environmental change. The residents advocating for the local ban are primarily focused on the waste generated by single-serve bottled water and its downstream effects on ocean life. Jean Hill’s campaign doesn’t dive into the larger politics of the bottled water industry to discuss issues of plastic production, water rights and water acquisition, and the health consequences of bottling water in plastic for long periods of time. Neither does the film.*

While these omissions are disappointing, this exposes a deep need for anti-bottled water campaigns to connect the dots between communities whose water rights have been stolen by beverage corporations, communities poisoned by petrochemical plants that make plastic bottles, and people in communities, like Concord, who care about oceanic pollution. There’s important intersectionality in this issue, and we should be looking forward to opportunities to more holistically transform this movement into one of environmental justice.

The film’s subtextual commentary on patriotism is one of its greatest thematic achievements. The filmmakers weave Concord’s revolutionary history (In 1775, the famous “shot heard round the world” was fired in Concord) into the modern struggle for plastic freedom. Activists in the film draw comparisons between the values and ideals of their revolutionary foremothers and forefathers and their current battle over the single-serve water bottle ban as one of freedom, justice, and morality.

Divide in Concord is above all a realistically hopeful film, important for provoking discussion and inviting viewers to reflect on their own commitments to the causes they care about most.
*For a more comprehensive look at the politics of the bottled water industry, consider Tapped, a documentary by Stephanie Soechtig that remains relevant even though it was released in 2009.