"One Big Home" documentary shines light on one big American blight

Drive around your neighborhood this afternoon. It doesn't matter whether you're hitting the shore in areas of Connecticut or the 'burbs of Texas, where your great aunt lives. In Alice, Texas, for example, the "rich" part of town boasts ginormous homes with unfathomable amounts of square feet. As this blogger's mother put it, "Yes, but where are the trees?"
That could be a metaphor for why big houses require a second look. Energy consumption for homes over even 3,000 square feet could fuel a small school, library, or train station.
And massive home building oftentimes occurs in areas that can least afford the carbon footprint. For example, in 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) compiled data that shows in Massachusetts, energy consumption is 22 percent greater on average than in the rest of the country.
The EPA wrote: "Since the weather in Massachusetts and New England is cooler than other areas of the United States, space heating makes up a greater portion of energy use in homes (59 percent) compared to the U.S. average, and air conditioning makes up only 1 percent of energy use."
Notably, since then New England and the country as a whole have made inroads on environmental awareness and green building - but that doesn't mean individual homeowners have gotten the message.
Also, climate change is making New England's winters warmer and more erratic, just as other parts of the country and the world experience everything from typhoons to winter tornadoes. The recent spate of twisters in Louisiana was unprecedented and destroyed numerous homes around New Orleans.
Whether air conditioners are pumping harder or dams are breaching, as occurred in California, the U.S. is in no position to build bigger, more energy-guzzling buildings.
In Thomas Bena's documentary, "One Big Home", opening in limited engagements* today, he shines a light on how in his town of Chilmark, Mass. on Martha's Vineyard the so-called "Mcmansion" movement spun out of control.
The filmmmaker points out, though, that he seeks to comment more on making a difference in one's community rather than rail against the bad guys building too-big houses. One beautiful moment in his film comes when he speaks to a woman on the first day in her Mcmansion. She won't show us her face, but her words are eloquent. She's not a monster - she's a nice woman whose husband is dying.
Bena -- a former businessman who quit his job to travel before landing on Martha's Vineyard and working as a carpenter who would build huge homes -- set out to help his community change. He documented his efforts, delving deeply into the stories of whom he calls his "characters" -- the residents of Chilmark -- in the process.
Just to give a sense of what he was dealing with: In the film, Bena shows the Rennert residence in East Hampton, New York. It blew my mind at an astonishing 66,000 square feet for just the main house (over 100,000 for all the buildings). It was particularly striking after he showed how it dwarfs the Taj Majal at 34,596 s.f.
Other examples in the Hamptons and Martha's Vineyard abound in the film, just as they no doubt mirror what many Americans see outside their front doors.
However, the film offers some hope as one man tackles just a small part of the big house problem.
Bena answered a few questions via e-mail. Following is an edited transcript of our conversation:
Describe the filmmaking process. What was the genesis and date you started and when did you complete it? In the film you say it was a 10-year process. How did you envision the film at the outset - i.e. you cared about these huge houses but what if the meeting had not been successful and no restrictions on building size were placed?
"One Big Home" took 12 years to shoot and edit. At the beginning, I had no idea what I was doing. I had never been to film school; I had never made a feature-length documentary; I just knew I had to start shooting.
Early on, I used a cheap digital camera with a bad microphone. Then I started using the free cameras and microphones provided by Martha’s Vineyard Community Television (for a mere $25 per year).
It was during the second year of filming that I recognized this could be a film. I began fundraising and asking friends and professionals to help. One interview led to the next. In year nine I hired a professional editor. After a few months of editing, I realized that I had a very personal film about a man who was bothered by trophy homes, but that was not the story I wanted to tell.
I had always wanted to make a film that inspired people and showed how individuals can effect change. In the leading role, I just came off as an angry young man complaining about the world not being fair.
After some soul-searching, I decided that I wanted to help pass a bylaw that would limit the size of houses in Chilmark, the town where I lived. I started fundraising again, gathering with community members, and attending planning board meetings. Because I didn’t know how to change local regulation, I decided to film the process of someone with no experience (me) trying to do so.
When I started shooting this film, I didn’t know where I’d end up. I didn’t know what story I wanted to tell, how I would tell it, and I certainly didn’t know where my own life was going.
One interesting part of the film is your own home building and the guilt that made you feel. Was your guilt more because you were tearing down your wife's family's home (or any home) or the size of the structure? i.e. you thought 4,000 sf or whatever was too big?
I still think about the guilt that I felt when tearing down the old house and building a 3,000 square foot new house (more than twice the size of the house I was raised in).
I’m a questioner—I enjoy asking questions so that is just part of my makeup.
But I also believe that in part, the guilt I felt results from being raised by people who came to this country with literally nothing—one suitcase. My mother was only 11 when she arrived. My grandparents and several aunts and uncles, never learned to speak English or to read and write. So I feel a strong connection with people who struggle to make ends meet and get by with not many luxuries in their life.
We are a country of immigrants—so I think I’m not alone in that feeling of connection. And at times I still suffer from some sort of survivor’s guilt. But I’m working on it and I love the fact that the wooden suitcase my grandmother brought to America now sits on a shelf in my living room.
I’m forever grateful to that woman—it was her idea to make the journey from the Azores to America.
-------- Bena is founder of the Martha's Vineyard Film Festival (Mar 16-19), celebrating its 17th season. Read more more about the film. "One Big Home" opens tomorrow. *
Following are the film's theatrical engagements:
February 15 Burlington, Vermont Contois Auditorium
February 15 Newport, Rhode Island -Casino Theater
February 17, 18, and 20 (extended run) Santa Fe, NM -The Screen
February 19 Edgartown, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts -Edgartown Cinemas (Screening every other Sunday–all winter long)
February 27 West Los Angeles, California -Royal Theater
February 28 North Hollywood, California -Laemmle's NoHo Theater
March 1 Pasadena, California Laemmle's Playhouse Theater
March 2 Santa Monica, California -Laemmle's Monica Theater
March 16 Washington, DC -The National Building Museum
Bena also welcomes readers to host a viewing of the film in their community.
Photo: A big home goes up on Martha's Vineyard. Used with permission, The050group.com. By Ray Ewing.
Contact the author at www.lauriewiegler.com.


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