The environmental filmmaker Gary Bencheghib and his brother Sam Bencheghib have helped raise awareness through films about their expeditions to some of the world’s most polluted waterways.

American filmaker Gary Bencheghib and his brother Sam Bencheghib has helped clean up most pulluted waters in United States and Indonesia through his work in documentary feature. Photo courtesy of Make A Change World/NOW!JAKARTA

They have sailed down the Mississippi river in the United States, paddled down two canals in Brooklyn, New York and in a kayak made of plastic bottles on the longest and largest river in West Java, the Citarum. Their films are available on as part of their initiative to initiate change. NOW! Jakarta spoke to Gary Bencheghib who divides his time between New York and Bali.

Please tell us about Make A Change World. What’s its mission and how  was it founded?
Growing up in Bali, plastics were everywhere. When we would go surfing, for every stroke we would get plastic entangled in our arms.  At 12 and 14 years old, in 2009, with my younger brother Sam, our first instinct was to clean up our beaches. Every week, on a different beach, we would assemble our friends in a clean up. But after every clean up, more and more trash would wash up. So we quickly asked ourselves, where was this trash coming from and how could we contribute towards stopping it.

Upon graduating high school, I went on to study film making to use the power of image and visuals to serve as an educational tool for change. I like to say that Make A Change World assembles all three of my passions: film making, activism and adventure. Through one of a kind expeditions, short form videos and media campaigns, I hope to inspire audiences online that anyone can make a change.

How big is the impact of the video stories published on the web?
Our videos have ranged from short one-minute videos profiling solutions and initiatives that are out to make the world a better place, to Trash Me,  a campaign, where I followed my friend Rob Greenfield wearing every single piece of trash that he created for an entire month. That project received 250 million views, which is more than the season finale of [the TV show] “Breaking Bad”. [I’ve also] kayaked down the Citarum river on plastic bottle kayaks in #PlasticBottleCitarum, which inspired the Indonesian government to take action to clean up the Citarum river.

Bencheghib uses upcycled boat made by unused plastic bottles.
Gary Bencheghib and his brother Sam Bencheghib.

How do you see current environmental issues globally?
For the last few years, we have been overdeveloping and focusing on the growth of the human species. Cites are becoming bigger. To keep up with the needs of consumerism, [there is] great environmental disturbance up to the point where glaciers the size of France are breaking off Antartica, and rivers are severally damaged. Having said that, there is an immense global environmental movement happening. With the help of social media, people all around the world are standing up and taking action.

You grew up in Bali and you’ve created many initiatives there with regard to issues of pollution.  Can you tell us what concerns you the most?
Our biggest focus to date has been to address the growing plastic pollution on the island of Bali and finding ways to empower local initiatives on the island by giving them a voice on social media through our videos. We are very hopeful by seeing the tide changing to beat plastic pollution on the island and in Indonesia with new big commitments from the government. We now need to do our bit to follow up and support in all capacities to ensure these changes happen fully.

Your video about paddling on the Citarum river got Indonesia’s government to clean up the river. Have there been any collaborations or partnerships after that?
Aside from being spokesperson for the Citarum Harum movement and travelling around the world to major environmental conferences to address how Indonesia is implicating its army to take action on rivers, we are also monitoring the clean up with our on ground partners. We are looking at longer term solutions on how to deal with the waste and how to start in the classroom by providing educational video content.

Have you had other experiences similar to your work on the Citarum river?
I have also rafted down the Mississippi river also on plastic bottles, this time floating on 800 plastic bottles on a raft entirely made from recycled materials. The raft was made from a wooden dock and we were relying on our sail made from old tents to move. This was a two-month expedition and the type of pollution we experienced was very different from that on the Citarum river; no where as visual, in fact almost impossible to see. Upon doing water tests and bringing them to the lab, we were shocked by the number of microplastics and pesticides in the water.

Gary Bencheghib on Citarum expedition.

The community that we were able to regroup together all along the river was very inspiring. It’s always amazing to see life along the banks the same water body, from its source upstream to its deltas. The ways of living are completely different, but the river is always the biggest natural element to remind you that life comes and goes.

How do you work with Indonesian society to support your work?
Indonesia is my “heart country”; if I could say I was Indonesian I wouldn’t hesitate a second. So, naturally, the focus of our work will always be based here. It is our main audience on our social media channels, so a lot of the projects we undertake and the content that we produce is dedicated to our Indonesian audience.

You’re often called an environmentalist, is that really your dream?
Being an environmentalist is a way of thinking. It’s waking up everyday knowing that you are on this planet to do something good. I am grateful to be everyday on the field meeting so many different environmentalists, who inspire me that there is so much hope for our planet to heal. They remind me that all action even if small contributes towards the greater good of our planet.

What project(s) are you working on now?
This is the 10th year of running “Make A Change”, this year also marks my younger brother Sam’s graduation year and he will be joining me full time. As the cause is more important than ever, we are excited to be taking the project to new boundaries.

We have a weekly show entitled “Plastic Watch” highlighting the top plastic news, which we release every Monday, as well as our longer investigative pieces “How Green Is Your City?” which  looks at what makes green cities around the world.

But the most exciting project yet is currently in prep mode for this summer. Can’t say too much about it just yet, so keep an eye out on our social channels on 8 June  for World Oceans Day.

the rivers are polluted from houshold waste.
Cleaning up the river.

Do you travel a lot in Indonesia? What are your observations?
Through my travels, Indonesia is really stepping up to beat plastic pollution on a national level. We are seeing more and more grassroots movements taking action. 2018 was really the year of awareness, where national clean ups happened. Plastic pollution [issues] took over social media. But this year is the year of change and action and we couldn’t be happier by the recent ban on plastic bags announced in Denpasar on 1 January, and the interest of new cities wanting to take the lead and follow.

Please share a few tips that we can follow to help protect our environment from further damage.
A lot of the times, we think changing our plastic habits is too difficult, we overestimate how easy it actually is. The truth is that we can all start today, and it starts with us, one by one, starting by thinking twice the next time we are at an aisle. We have to learn to refuse what one uses for seconds and throw away. Ask yourself “Is it really worth me using this for 5 seconds of enjoyment and for it to stay in our environment for hundreds of years.” Once we learn to embrace that philosophy, it becomes a lot easier to take on other steps to live a sustainable life and lessen our impact on the environment.

Sari Widiati

Sari Widiati

Sari has been an arts and culture enthusiast for many years. She has written extensively on the arts, travel, and social issues as Features Writer at NOW! Jakarta.