Meet the Filmmakers Who Got the Government to Listen

Featured in Creativity
Gary and Sam Bencheghib paddle through pollution along the Citarum River.
Meet the Filmmakers Who Got the Government to Listen

Gary and Sam Bencheghib are filmmakers from Bali with a mission to change the environment — and the world — with their films. Together they founded Make A Change World, a platform dedicated to creating impactful videos. It’s easy to hear that someone’s mission is to “change the world” and think that they are speaking theoretically. But Gary and Sam meant it.

Living in Indonesia — the world’s second-largest contributor of plastic marine pollution — Gary and Sam were frustrated with the lack of action towards environmental protection. So they decided to create towards their own solution: they took to the Citarum River, one of the world’s most polluted rivers, on a kayak made of plastic waste. They created a film out of their expedition and impressively, got the attention of the Ministry of the Environment of Indonesia. A short time after their film was shared, the government announced a 2-year plan to clean up the river.

Hear from the filmmakers and siblings on how they tackled such a big issue, what’s next, and their advice on filmmakers looking to make a tangible impact.

Filmmaking is such a powerful way to reach people and change minds, can you speak to what made you decide to create films about pollution?

GB: Growing up on the island of Bali, from the youngest age we witnessed our home beaches change from a pristine state to being heavily covered in plastic. At the age of 12 and 14, Sam and I began a movement to clean up Bali. We would organize clean ups every weekend with schools and various businesses around the island and we used our music to speak to the youth.

Gary Bencheghib captures footage of students in his home province of Bali.

Much later, we saw the power of image and how shareable it could be. I went on to study documentary filmmaking at the New York Film Academy and have since been using my camera as a media vehicle to document some of the most polluted places in the world and tell stories about those committed to make a difference.

You created a film about pollution in Indonesia that the government responded to. Can you share that story?

SB: We built two plastic bottle kayaks and used them to paddle down one of the world’s most polluted rivers, the Citarum river, located in West Java in Indonesia. 25 million people live in the surrounding areas of this river and 500,000 people have been recorded to use its waters to bathe, drink and wash their clothes.

Gary Bencheghib on the kayak he and his brother made from trash found in the Citarum River.

We were shocked to find out that this was happening on our neighboring island, so we decided to create an awareness campaign. Our goal was to create shocking visuals to document the state of the river, as well as to showcase some of the local initiatives around the river.

We posted our videos on social media and they were shared around the world, enticing national and international press coverage and our videos went viral. The Indonesian government heard our concerns and two weeks after the expedition, we were invited to meet a representative from the Indonesian Ministry of the Environment, who delivered an on-camera commitment to an emergency clean up plan.

Trash along the Citarum River: one of the most polluted rivers in the world.

Just at the end of last year, Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, announced a 7 years full rehabilitation plan of the river. We are so excited to see real action happening to restore one of our world’s most polluted rivers.

Watch the full video:

It must feel incredible to know that you were behind a movement with tangible impact. How did you make sure that film got in front of the right people?

GB: From Facebook, YouTube to WhatsApp, we made sure to keep all our contacts updated and informed of our project with our videos. Very little did we know that it would create so much hype nationally.

The Indonesian government happens to be very active on social media, so that helped with visibility. The big boost was when the videos went viral on WhatsApp — with us having very little control over who forwarded it onwards — and they luckily ended up in the hands of decision makers.

Sam Bencheghib paddles through debris along the Citarum River.
How have you expanded your approach past the Citarum River cleanup? What have you been working on since?

SB: Since our Citarum expedition, we have been working on expanding Make a Change World as a media platform by releasing more videos to bring awareness to the global pollution issues that impact us all. We have a few ongoing video series in production.

In December, we expanded our Citarum approach to the US by stand-up paddling down two of America’s most polluted waterways. This time we addressed the industrial waste of the Gowanus canal and the Newtown Creek in Brooklyn. We are also currently planning our next expedition to circumnavigate Bali to document and find solutions to combat the ever growing coastal pollution problem.

Gary Bencheghib paddles along the Citarum River.
Can you share your process? What is the journey like from the point you become aware of an issue, to the point you have a film in front of people?

GB: In our last projects, we have been very focused on reporting some of the most polluted waterways in the world and on documenting initiatives to restore them. Every approach is different, depending on the environment at hand. Our expedition vessels have ranged from a recycled raft (down the Mississippi river), to two plastic bottle kayaks (down the Citarum river) to SUP boards (down the two Brooklyn waterways).

Once we decide on a location and a mode of transportation, we begin to research individuals who are devoted to restoring these waterways. Our hope is to give them a platform to voice their concerns and dreams by featuring them and regrouping them in a video series. All the filming is done throughout the expedition and edited in a micro doc format to be published via our platform, Make a Change World.

Why do you think creating films with an impact purpose in mind is so important?

SB: We believe in the power of storytelling and social media. Our work is focused on amplifying the voices of the eco champions, the doers, and those fighting night and day for a cleaner world.

Sam Bencheghib wades through pollution along the Citarum River.

We take advantage of all platforms available today to raise public awareness, drive engagement and motivate people to take action. Hence our motto, “Changing the world one view at a time.”

What advice would you give to artists who want to effect change in their communities?

GB: You can only be persuasive if you are passionate enough about the change you want to create. Research the topic endlessly, become an expert on it, include your community and come up with the most unique, creative and engaging angle to suggest this change.

See more of Gary and Sam’s work on Project 1324.

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