Staffer Explores Consumption in Documentary

Environmental activist John van der Harst is subject of a documentary film by culture editor Cliff Vaughn titled 'Immaterial John.'
The average Nashvillian throws away a ton of garbage every year. Environmental activist John van der Harst throws away a pound.

Van der Harst is the subject of a documentary film by Cliff Vaughn, culture editor for "Immaterial John" opened April 26-May 2 at the 35th annual Nashville Film Festival.


The film is under consideration at five other festivals in Birmingham, Ala.; Indianapolis; St. Louis; Minneapolis; and Hot Springs, Ark.


Vaughn said he decided to make a movie after reading a story in the Nashville Tennessean about the draftsman and designer who, by choice, lives on $3,600 a year, less than half the official poverty line. Vaughn wanted to know more, so he called John and talked for an hour. He followed up with a letter asking John to let him make a film documenting both his activism and lifestyle.


Vaughn pared down 26 hours of footage--including interviews with van der Harst, friends, activists, politicians and other leaders--into a 39-minute documentary, his first. He shot the movie with a high-definition video camera and edited it on a home computer.


Vaughn said he has always been interested in film. He once worked at a TV station and produced a few video features for a student-run news magazine while working on his master's degree in communications from Auburn University. He taught TV production and scriptwriting while working on his doctorate in American culture from Bowling Green State University. He has been writing fictional scripts for more than a decade, but this is his first stab at a documentary.


"John is such a compelling character," Vaughn said. "I don't think I've ever met anyone who is completely unmotivated by money."


"For most Americans, making money is a priority of life, and John has arrived at a mental, physical and emotional place where such a priority fails to exist," Vaughn said. "That's remarkable, and worthy of a documentary."


The 49-year-old van der Harst lives in a 230-square-foot apartment. He has no cell phone, computer, cable TV or car. He uses a rotary phone and runs or bikes wherever he goes. Friends describe the Detroit native who moved to Nashville about 20 years ago as "hard-core," "intense" and "persistent."


Living frugally allows van der Harst to work only when he wants to and spend the rest of his time on issues he deems important, such as solid-waste management. He is active in a number of social movements and well known in Nashville politics. He has been sued by corporations that he tried to shut down.


"I live on less than half of what the official poverty level is for someone like me and I'm not poor," van der Harst says in the film. "'I live a fine life, and I enjoy my life. My life is fine without spending that extra money. So I live in a very economical way, but it's actually a higher quality of life than what I could hope to attain by spending extra money to do more consumptive things with my lifestyle."


While not a believer, van der Harst says his lifestyle is probably more like Jesus of Nazareth's than most Christians. He says he likes to live his life as if money didn't exist.


Having the film screened at the Nashville Film Festival was an honor for Vaughn. Two hundred movies were chosen from 1,200 submitted.


"'My goal was to have it accepted by the film festival," Vaughn told the Tennessean. In addition to looking for more screenings, he hopes to be able to sell it. DVDs cost $10, plus $2 for shipping and handling, and are available on the movie's Web site.


"I like to think that the film might be interesting to groups that might want to focus on consumption habits," Vaughn said.


"It is a very well-done film," Brian Gordon, artistic director of the Nashville Film Festival said in the Tennessean. "'He did a great job. The subject matter is very interesting and the film gives a straightforward presentation of someone who really cares. John is someone we can all learn from."


Vaughn named his Nashville-based production company, which he formed last year, Red Clay Pictures after the type of soil in north Alabama, where he was born and raised on a farm.


David Elder, who recently graduated from Belmont University in Nashville, composed music for "Immaterial John."


Vaughn said John is not a Christian, but his story is relevant to Christians and non-Christians alike. Both Christians and atheists have seen "Immaterial John," he said, and both found merit in van der Harst's philosophy.


"As a follower of Jesus, I feel compelled to pay attention to John," Vaughn said. Most people build their lives around amassing money and "stuff," he said, even though they know they can't take it with them when they die.


"John thinks we, as a society, have been hoodwinked," Vaughn said, "and I can't say I disagree."


Bob Allen is managing editor of


Click here to view a trailer from "Immaterial John" (requires Real Media player.)


Click here to order the movie.



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