You’re never too young to be an eco-warrior. Just ask 23-year-old environmental filmmaker Gary Bencheghib. The French national founded Make a Change Bali when he was a teenager, to organise beach clean-ups on the island where he was raised from the age of 9. He now lives between New York and Bali.
Bencheghib’s initiative subsequently grew into Make a Change World, “a vehicle for positive messages of change”. He and his younger brother Sam go on expeditions down some of the most polluted waterways in the world, including the Mississippi. The goal of their expeditions is to create video series portraying some of the local heroes involved in protecting the environment. The siblings have raised international awareness of the state of the Citarum – the longest and largest river in West Java, and reputedly the world’s dirtiest waterway – with a devastating series of nine videos that have gone viral online.
“Make a Change World is an expansion of the work we did in Bali,” Bencheghib explains. “We share stories of change-makers from around the world via one- to two-minute videos to raise awareness for causes we care about. We believe in the power of storytelling and effective online videos as a source of inspiration. Our platform exists to share stories of the organisations and the people we admire. We promote their initiatives with the hope of encouraging our viewers to make small changes towards living a more sustainable life.”
While growing up in Bali, the brothers liked to go surfing and running along the beach. “But a lot of times when we surfed, our arms were encircled with plastic,” Bencheghib recalls with a wince. “That was when we were only 14 and 12 years old. We thought, what can we do as the youth of this island to change this? This was in 2009, when being an eco-warrior was not that ‘sexy’.
“The first thing we knew we could do was to physically remove the trash. So we started Make a Change Bali and, together with local young people, we organised beach clean-ups every week. Over the years, the island had been progressively getting worse and worse. At that time, our means to engage with people was through music, and I was a musician as well. So I organised my first big concert, ‘Bali Environment Day Concert’, on May 1, 2010. It was sort of an opening, to see the power of social media to attract people’s attention and also to educate them. We collaborated with bands like Superman Is Dead and Navicula, and tried to educate people on Bali’s growing waste problem by making music and videos.
“I ended up going to film school in New York five years ago, and then I fell in love with the camera. I started to see the power of social media and videos to make a change. I did my first project one year after I started film school. It’s called ‘Trash Me’. One of my friends decided to wear all the trash he created. So he put on a giant trash suit. Every day he put in it the average amount of trash that Americans create, about 4.5 pounds of plastic. He got bigger and bigger. After 30 days, he was this monster walking around in New York!
“Fast forward to the Citarum project now. We’re always looking for unique concepts to convey our environmental message. The idea for the Citarum film was to make the most shocking visual message by floating down the river on a boat made of plastics – the very materials that pollute our rivers. Because 80 percent of the plastic waste in our oceans comes from rivers and streams.
“We Googled the most polluted river in the world, and came up with the Citarum. It’s not a good thing to be famous for, but it is what it is. Sam and I created a kayak made of plastic bottles to show that we could reuse plastics as something creative and useful – that the waste in our rivers could be repurposed.
“We put the kayak in the water at Majalaya, where the river starts, and from the beginning of the journey you could see plastic garbage all around. At times, we had to get out of the kayak and carry it over thousands of pieces of trash. As we documented our trip, we were connecting with people all along the river to show the positivity that was going on.
“The Citarum is obviously very polluted. But there are so many people there who have been actively cleaning it up in the last few years. We wanted to show what’s really going on, and not just focus on ourselves. So we met up with environmental groups that are cleaning the river every day. This video series is a mixture of our journey and the people we met. We made a series of nine short films.
“A lot of the people we filmed felt empowered: ‘Oh, I can be on TV doing this. I can’t believe we’re going to be in a movie, etc.’ For us, it was about finding under-represented voices and getting their message out. They were very happy to be part of this project. Because when you’re doing an environmental project, especially a big one, it’s all about the collaboration.
“In two weeks, we covered 96 km, and we carried the kayak for 40km. We got it to the most polluted places. Sometimes, if we wanted to get out of the river after two hours of paddling, we needed to walk 3km to reach the pick-up truck.”
In spite of the enormity of the task of cleaning up big waterways, Bencheghib is optimistic about the future of the Citarum. “The government is taking ownership of the clean-up,” he asserts. “They are really stepping up to the problem. The Indonesian Army has deployed 700 troops to help.
“We finished filming last September and two weeks later the Director of Waste Management, Pak Sudirman, announced a two-year emergency plan to clean up the river. In November, they announced that the Army would live with the local people and divide the river into 22 sectors.
“At the end of December, I had the honour of meeting President Joko Widodo during the opening ceremony in Cisanti. He promised that in seven years the Citarum would be clean and clear. It’s ambitious, and I don’t think they’re going to stop. They’re working 24/7, and the national attention the cleanup getting is inspiring. I think Indonesia should be proud of everything they’ve done so far.
“Things are progressing well. They have closed down 37 factories that were dumping waste into the river. They have been removing some of the plastics floating on the surface, and setting up floating net booms to control the trash. The Army is also doing educational workshops with the local people. They are showing the villagers what’s really going on and trying to change their mindset. Because what’s the use of cleaning up the river if people are still throwing trash in there?
“In August, when we filmed the video, the water was so thick and muddy it had the consistency of black mayonnaise. You could smell a toxic perfume. Now at the Saguling Dam you can see quite clearly up to 20cm deep.”
What can we all do to help clean up the environment? “Everybody can contribute with simple gestures, like refusing to use plastic bags,” says Bencheghib. “It’s up to ourselves to really change, mindset wise. In the bigger picture, it’s always about collaborating with people at different levels, like banning single-use plastic bags and replacing them with biodegradables. We can use the technology in our hands, our smartphones, to make things better. For example, we can easily take photos of garbage that shouldn’t be there, and report it.”