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Garbage Warrior

Directed by Oliver Hodge
Uncertified, 86 mins

There is a fine line between being a visionary marvel and madman. Martin Scorsese captured it in The Aviator where we watched the weight of Howard Hughes' Icarean flights of fancy drag him down, down to a one-room obsessive compulsive insanity.

The subject of Garbage Warrior, the New Mexico-based architect Michael Reynolds, knows something of what it is to fly too close to the sun. One of his early ventures in sustainable buildings drew so much heat through its wall of glass that it melted the heirloom plastic typewriter of the resident writer. Reynolds has been building his self-sufficient homes - or 'earth ships' - out of bottles, beer cans, and tyres for 35 years, and though they once seemed the product of someone who had never grown out of 1960s hippiedom, their time seems to have come. He and his team were invited to the tsunami-wracked coast of the Andaman Islands to share their plastic bottle brickbuilding skills. His work is now mentioned in the same breath as global warming, Hurricane Katrina, and sea level rise.

Oliver Hodge tightly packs his award-winning documentary with both Reynolds' maverick enthusiasm and the corresponding deadweight of institutional bureaucracy that threatens his work. The interior shots of corridors of power and regimented state officialdom are in distinct contrast to the spacious desert where Reynolds and the free spirits who turn up on his doorstep explore his hard-won vision. (Hard-won not least for his longsuffering wife, Chris, who calls him a 'freak magnet'…)

It is to Reynolds' credit that he is able to train his activism to the requirements of a frustratingly glacial-paced legal establishment. You feel the life-sapping seven years it took for Reynolds to get the bill passed that saved his experiments. Yet by the end of that ordeal he is excited by the influence he might have within that same system. Reynolds is strangely (providentially?) assisted by Zee, a beautiful raven-headed lawyer who with a flick of her mane appears to bewitch every New Mexico senate bureaucrat she encounters. (So that's what you need to get planning permission.)

Hodge captures something of the sheer magic of what Reynolds and his crew are on about. For one thing, their cluttered Sustainable Development Testing Site 'lab' is a one-time nuclear rest space redeemed. The lack of mortgages, fuel or water bills and the ability to grow their own food will draw the envy of credit-crunched cinema audiences, but the waste-built earthships are especially exciting propositions in a world of diminishing resources.

'I am absolutely free,' Reynolds claims to underscore the personal benefits of his decades' long singlemindedness, but his pioneer spirit is one earthed by sheer toil and steeped in a sense of the Bigger Picture. He speaks beguilingly of humans having the power to 'make earth sing like music' if only they designed and built in tune with it as he has tried. But his passion is fuelled too by a sense of urgency and time running out. He is inspired by Noah 'who saw something coming.'

Garbage Warrior is a heartening companion-piece to green documentaries such as An Inconvenient Truth and The 11th Hour. It is not difficult to become overwhelmed by the challenges of increasing climate change. Yet in such small-scale, localised human endeavour and ingenuity that Michael Reynolds has made his life's work is captured a very real and future hope.