“Do I need it?” – Review from the Green Film Festival of San Francisco 2022


kate shermerhorn

“Life-changing” is an adjective whose overuse has turned into a cliché. But applying that adjective to the opening night film of this year’s edition of San Francisco’s Green Film Festival (hereinafter “Green Film”) seems appropriate, especially to those for whom Marie Kondo is about to be mentored. The thought was what inspired the beat. That film, local filmmaker Kate Schermerhorn’s personal documentary “Do I Need This”, raises awareness of what is valuable in life and the role of accumulated material in it.

Initially, Schermerhorn tossed out factoids to explain how hyperconsumerism has played out in America. For example, the average American household has 300,000 items. Or that 93% of Americans use their garage for storage and 34% of them don’t know what’s in there. But the lack of attribution sucks up some of the power of these factoids.

It is interviews with various experts that provide the necessary degree of context. Juliet Shore, author of “Plattitude,” notes that consuming things isn’t inherently bad. The act of consuming is part of personal existence and even personal pleasure. The problem comes when that initial enjoyment of consumption turns into an uncontrolled accumulation of goods.

What sets “Do I Need This” from other documentaries on the subject is Schermerhorn’s candor, which puts its weaknesses on camera with regards to stuff hoarding. The director’s camera consultation with In Order To…Organize’s Kathleen Crombie moves Schermerhorn’s things from box to box in connection with throwing stuff out of their garage. Viewers can thus rest assured that the director is not making decisions, as she shows that she has also failed to deal well with the disposal of the goods.

True, Schermerhorn isn’t like homeowner Millie Howell, whose home interior would inspire a migraine in anyone with a clean glow in their bones. His kitchen counters are littered with dirty pots and pans. Everything from junk mail to important bills is strewn across every square surface of his desk and floor. But for Howell, letting the stuff accumulate is less difficult than constantly navigating the process of figuring out what to take for temperance and where to take it.

As Randy Frost (co-author of “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things”) puts it, connecting emotionally to things is a very human reaction. But the big problem in our hyperconsumerist society is that the large number of things produced creates too many opportunities for this kind of association to develop. The Buddhist monk Thuptan Donyo seems to have escaped this curse due to his lack of attachment to things. But even he likes to have surplus cloaks in his wardrobe.

Schermerhorn’s biggest challenge comes with the changes in her parents’ lives, along with an unwanted personal attachment to the stuff. They are reduced to an assisted living facility from their Marin County home as Schermerhorn’s mother slowly succumbs to dementia. This means that he renounced most of the art and other skills he had acquired throughout his life. Trouble is, Schermerhorn is attached to the strangest things her parents keep, like a vacuum cleaner that’s been repurposed to serve as a DIY Santa. To make room for this new stuff, he has to get rid of some of the old stuff.

“Do I Need This” soon evolving amid this major change in Schermerhorn’s own parents’ lives and such big picture issues as the homogenization of American life and the ecological impacts of consumer supply chains around the world. Alternate between relations. The film also discusses alternatives to the endless accumulation of things. One option presented by B. Johnson (“Zero Waste Home”) involved selling the larger house she lived in and questioning what she really needed in her new home.

The exhaustion after dealing with something like 20,000 pounds of stuff helps Schermerhorn eventually see the extent of further accumulation of things. As an interesting counterpoint, Schermerhorn’s mother may have lost sight of the curiosities she has acquired around the world, but she now enjoys simple things like a good pair of tennis shoes.

“Do I need this” eventually falls in favor of discovering that the most valuable thing in life is experience. But the film could have gone further by keeping in mind that things matter as a touchstone for remembering an experience. However, once the emotional link to the owner’s prior experience is gone, there is really no need to keep any particular item.

The film’s most insightful point, however, as to why people hoard things, comes from a psychologist who sees the connection between baggage and personal dreams. A person who hoards things may do so because they have a personal dream they want to keep alive. One can submit a hundred cookbooks because they dream of becoming a great chef. Yet when that dream doesn’t come true, letting go of the accumulated baggage in pursuit of that dream seems like an unwanted acknowledgment that the dream will never come true.

So will watching a Shermerhorn movie suddenly prompt viewers to clean out their closets or dump their broken electronics? It is up to the viewer. Schermerhorn offers an object lesson in the dangers of reluctance to decide what is valuable in life as homeowner Jamie Gill. When she received some advance warning that a forest fire was approaching her home, she was torn by tremendous indecision about what was most important to grab. Ultimately, Gil no longer had time to grab anything and lose everything in his house in the wildfire.

(“Do I need this?” screen at the Roxy Theater (3117-16th Street, SF) on April 14, 2022 at 8:00 p.m. It will be available online at sfindie anytime between April 14 and 24, 2022 .com as long as the viewer has a ticket. Go here for more information on the film.)

Filed Under: Arts & Entertainment


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