The Right Kind of Nerve
by Campbell Wood
Kentucky filmmaker Ben Evans and musician Ben Sollee are working on a documentary film. Nerve, set to premiere on October 2nd at the EKU Arts Center, will tell the story of the aging chemical weapons stored in the Bluegrass and the controversies, pitfalls and triumphs of the effort to rid the region of them. The film will also document the emergence of Kentucky Environmental Foundation (KEF). This year is the 25th anniversary of KEF.
As I write this in mid-September, Ben Evans likely is at his “standing desk’ – a bureau with an old VCR on top, which puts his laptop at the perfect height for his work. Straight ahead he studies and edits images and film clips on a large wall-mounted monitor. He has a lot to work with, over 30 hours of footage from the Berea College Archives, an untold number of hours from old VCR tapes and DVDs stored in boxes at the KEF offices, clips downloaded from C-Span archives, materials from presidential libraries, and material from archive.org and other Internet sources. Add to that the footage he has filmed of interviews and scenes in the Bluegrass, as well as collections of photographs. In the days ahead Ben Sollee will join him to score the film.
When Heather Warman became executive director of KEF in January of 2014, she realized that KEF’s 25th anniversary would be a ripe opportunity to tell the organization’s founding story: how a non-partisan coalition of citizen groups challenged the Army’s plans to construct an incinerator at the Bluegrass Army Depot in Richmond and burn the chemical weapons stored there since World War II. What has emerged from the controversy is a transparent and cooperative engagement involving all parties, including the Army, citizens, the government and corporations. It’s a story worth telling, and Warman says it’s a model for how diverse groups with conflicting interests and agendas can work together, even when the stakes are very high, to bring about breakthrough solutions. KEF took bids from a number of film companies. “We hired Ben because he’s an activist,” said Warman. “His work is very much in alignment with our goals and mission.”
Evans largely credits his mother for his passion about environmental issues. “She was a deeply spiritual person with a sharp mind for science,” said Evans. “She was trying to come to grips with what we are doing to the planet, and she wanted to bring healing to that relationship.” She put the mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle into practice. Evans remembers from his childhood her making a hammock for him out of six-pack plastic rings. When she died of cancer in 2004, Evans reevaluated his life and career. “When she passed away,” said Evans, “in some ways she was living in me. When a parent dies we realize we’re here for a short time. I wanted to use the things I love doing in service of the issues that are most important. To me, that issue was taking better care of the only planet we have.”
Evans was living in New York City when his mother died. With a BS degree in Science, Technology and Society from Stanford University, he chose to follow his passion for acting, a bug he caught during high school. His professional acting career developed over a decade, taking him to L.A. and Europe. In the New York theater world he met his wife, Julie, also a professional actor. By the fall of 2006, Ben and Julie, along with a friend, Mark Dixon, began planning a road trip that would alter the course of their lives. On July 4th of 2007, they departed NYC in a Ford hybrid and traveled to all 50 states meeting with environmental leaders, writers and innovators. Their trip ended on July 4th of 2008. The journey produced the documentary film, YERT (Your Environmental Road Trip). The film was an official selection at fourteen film festivals in 2011 and 2012. It won awards at six of them.
Evans counts as his favorite scene from the movie a visit with Larry Gibson, a West Virginia mountain resident who was holding out on his piece of land while mountaintop removal was happening all around. The scene is a study of the land interspersed with shots of Gibson while the Ben Sollee song, Panning for Gold, played. “I fell in love with that song,” said Evans. “I wanted to build that mountaintop removal scene around that song.” Again Sollee’s music will join with Evans’ filmmaking. Sollee is also an artist who is known for raising awareness on environmental and social issues through his art.
“This time it’s going to be songs that are built for the project,” said Evans. “He’ll be looking at parts of the film and building around those. Actually, it’ll be a more organic process. The songs will influence the film and the film will influence the music. I’ll be doing some tweaking and enhancing based on the music.”
Since the making of YERT, Ben Evans and Julie have moved to Louisville to be near family. He has kept busy doing film and video pieces for various environmental organizations, as well as serving as editor for a full-length documentary. He has also been involved in environmental activism and education in Louisville.
The project of making Nerve introduced Evans to Craig Williams, a key figure in the story. Williams cofounded the Chemical Weapons Working Group with Peter Hille and went on to found KEF where he is currently Program Director. “When I first met Craig, I got really excited,” said Evans. “He’s a great guy and a whole lot of fun. I got excited to profile him. There is some humor in the film, and it’s largely due to his personality” He has done four interviews with Williams and has done numerous other interviews including street interviews with citizens in Richmond.
The challenge, Evans says, is to make a compelling film, one that is true to the subject matter while keeping it interesting and entertaining.
The premiere of Nerve will include a guest performance by Ben Sollee. It’s free. 7 pm to 9 pm, Friday, October 2, at EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond.
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