Ask Boulder filmmaker Pamela Tanner Boll when she got the idea for her latest documentary, A Small Good Thing, and she’ll go back a lot further than you might expect: “From as long as I can remember, even as a little girl, I was always asking people, ‘What is everything all about?’”
Answering her own question, A Small Good Thing follows the lives of six individuals who have broken the routine and found meaning in their lives.
“About five years ago, I finished my last film, which was Who Does She Think She Is?, and it was a very big success, and that was wonderful,” Boll tells Boulder Weekly. “On the whole, I was feeling like a pretty blessed person, and yet, I had this sort of gnawing feeling, that, you know: [is] this it?
“If I’m feeling that, what about everyone else?” Boll continues. “Everyone I talked to seemed to be busy, stressed, not necessarily connecting with their friends and family, even though they wanted to.”
That nagging feeling wasn’t helped by an invitation to attend a conference at the Aspen Institute about how to live a good life.
“I was shocked that they had nothing about the environment, nothing about the natural world, nothing about how a good life also involved other species and our home, the Earth,” Boll recounts.
When Boll asked conference officials why these ideas were left out, she was told: “‘We study these things in other modules.’”
This felt misguided to Boll. Her inkling was that living well-involved something a little more balanced.
“There is much more interest and openness to this notion—that comes from, if you will, the East—of living in harmony and being a part of something greater,” Boll says. “But the Western sort of trends—for 2,000 years since the Greeks—have been individual achievement and a focus on the individual.”
And as Boll shows in A Small Good Thing, living a good life is to set man and nature in accord with one another, not opposition.
“I wanted to show that you could be a high achieving, productive person while not letting go of these other drives: being in a community, being in the natural world, and truly connecting in an authentic way,” Boll says.
The six subjects of A Small Good Thing—who all reside in the rural Berkshires region in western Massachusetts—find meaning by utilizing simple, ancient traditions in a modern world. That includes spending more time outdoors.
“When we’re out in the natural world, we’re happier,” Boll explains. “In Japan, they do something called forest bathing. … A few hours of just walking in a forest creates changes in the body that can be measured.”
Bonding with both nature and people are major aspects of the film. Boll presents ideas that eschew the current trend toward a global community—courtesy the internet—in favor of a smaller, tight-knit community. But this creates a conflict that Boll willingly acknowledges.
“We’ve sort of been deluded by this [digital community]—there is a connection, don’t get me wrong, and there is a place. But when technology replaces personal encounters, people have a sense of dis-ease and, this is again worn out by quite a few studies. It’s not the same, and we act as though it were,” Boll says. “I think a lot of people are lonely, and they don’t get it. They don’t understand why they’re lonely. They’re texting all the time; they’re connected to all these online communities, [but] it’s not giving them the sense of longing and satisfaction that they think it should.”
The key to Boll’s plan is to increase and deepen human encounters with actual people, which is a topic Boll brings up time and time again in the documentary and in conversation.
“We sometimes think we’re doing ourselves a favor by saying, ‘OK, I have this schedule. I’m going to get these things done. I’m only going to see that person because otherwise I’ll be overwhelmed and exhausted,’” Boll says. “I think a lot of people feel overwhelmed and exhausted.
“My theory in the film, and it’s worn out by the research, is that we’re overwhelmed and exhausted because we’re not getting human contact in the way that we’re meant to,” Boll points out. “We’re not getting the real, ‘I see you. I’m laughing with you.’”
That makes Boll’s career as a filmmaker a perfect fit. As A Small Good Thing hopscotches across the country, playing festivals and art house theaters, an audience of strangers will come together to think about these topics in the community of the cinema.
“There is a different kind of energy when you’re in an actual screening with an actual audience,” Boll says. “There’s a feeling of, ‘Yes, we’re all in this together.’”