Filmmaker connects Cleveland to environmental success stories

Brad Masi transcends basic environmentalism. If he’s not riding his bike or walking, he’s driving his electric car. He installed solar panels and a geothermal heat pump in his house. He introduced native plants throughout his property, bringing leopard frogs, American toads, tree frogs and the occasional spring peeper back to his neighborhood.

Masi has mostly exhausted what he can do personally to be eco-friendly. Still, at a time when “climate change is the defining issue that we face,” he says, he’s not satisfied.
 
“Ethically I’m doing a good thing, but in the overall scheme, it feels so tiny and insignificant,” he says. “We need to figure out how we can connect the larger community around this stuff.”
 
Masi realized he could have a larger collective impact by making films about Northeast Ohio’s primary environmental issues and challenges, from urban agriculture to transportation.
 
“I’ve always been into film and cinema,” says the Denver native, who relocated here to attend Oberlin College. He graduated with honors in 1993. “I’ve found it to be one of the most effective art forms to convey empathy for other people’s lives or situations.”

Brad Masi working on editing at his home in Cleveland Heights.
 
Masi is wrapping production on “Bike City,” the third and final film in his “Moving Places” series of documentaries, supported by funding from the Ohio Humanities, about the history and evolution of transportation in Cleveland. The film will look at the move toward a more livable, walkable city and the emergence of biking as an integral component of urban transportation, whether for commuting, recreation, or socializing.
 
He is still conducting oral histories of Cleveland cyclists to integrate their stories and insights and delving into archives to piece together the heyday of cycling in Cleveland and cities across the country during the 1890s as a historical component of the film.

Ticket to ride
 
Masi expects to have “Bike City” available for viewing this spring or early summer, and he plans to organize community viewing events where people can ride their bikes or walk to the screening. The film represents a transition into his next series of films that will zero in on climate change. Moreover, Masi sees Northeast Ohio as uniquely positioned to take on global climate change through local actions.
 
“The only way we’re going to address these monolithic sustainability issues such as hunger or climate change is to break them down into smaller pieces and realize that all of us can play our own part in making those changes,” he says.
 
The climate change series is still taking shape. He’s thinking about covering best agricultural practices that can provide a significant reduction in the region’s carbon footprint.

In production, "Bike City" identifies how the wider adoption of bicycles for travel around Cleveland can impact our contribution to the climate crisis.

For example, he will show how proper soil management practices can help remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil to enhance conditions for growing. Soil management can also improve water storage in times of drought or increase the ability to store large amounts of water during extreme rainstorms.

Additionally, organic methods can help farmers reduce their need for chemical fertilizers, which are highly energy-intensive to manufacture, and cut down on fertilizer runoff into Lake Erie that causes algae blooms.
 
“As we move toward more sustainable, organic agriculture and more local food systems, we can substantially reduce impacts that those farms have on the climate,” Masi says. “Because transportation is a huge greenhouse gas contributor, Cleveland can also continue to design neighborhoods that are more accommodating to people on foot or bike or for better public transportation access.”

Freeway fights

Next month, Masi will host a screening of “Freeway City,” the second of three Cleveland transportation documentaries in his “Moving Places” series. [See sidebar.] The film looks at the history of the 1960s “Freeway Fights” which halted a series of highway projects that would have devastated neighborhoods, commercial districts, and green space on Cleveland’s East Side.  
 
“Brad’s films take us into his head, where streetcars and social justice are two sides of the same coin, where food deserts spread in the shadows of freeways,” says his friend and fellow bicycle enthusiast Sam Bell, CEO, of RoadPrintz Inc. Masi volunteered to help Bell document the evolution of his Cleveland Heights company, a robotic road-painting business which provides affordable, durable, visual street markings for bike lanes.
 
“The video footage has been instrumental in our growth,” Bell says. “Brad has been extraordinarily generous with his time and talents.”
 
After graduating, Masi served as executive director of the New Agrarian Center in Oberlin from 2000 to 2009, where it took five years to revitalize the soil that industrial soy farming had depleted. He then moved to Cleveland Heights with his wife, Dr. Farah Munir, director of psychiatry for Signature Health. In 2002, he graduated Phi Alpha Alpha with a master’s of science in urban studies at Cleveland State University.
 
Concurrent with his work in Oberlin, he served as co-founder of the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Food Policy Coalition and the food justice initiative City Fresh. During that time, he produced a film directed by videographer and filmmaker Tom Kondilas, “PolyCultures: Food Where We Live,” which explores the emergence of the local food movement in the Greater Cleveland area. The film premiered at the Cleveland International Film Festival in 2009.
 
Moving pictures

After making “PolyCultures,” Masi says, he realized City Fresh food markets were more than just a place to distribute nutritious, locally grown foods to urban neighborhoods that had become food deserts with fast-food restaurants as their main shopping choice; they were also distribution points for great stories.
 
“Film is an effective way to capture and connect these stories of disparate worlds,” Masi says. “We saw the opportunity to connect people to these larger stories to give them a sense of purpose. We used film to talk about the health benefit, the environmental benefits, the economic benefits and employment opportunities and so forth of a sustainable local food system.”
 
In 2015, the American Community Gardening Association commissioned Masi to make a film about Cleveland’s urban agriculture and community gardening programs for its annual conference, held in Cleveland that year. “Cleveland Growing Strong” incorporates 10 oral histories from the 25 interviews he shot with local oral historian Nancy Nolan Jones.

Brad Masi at Shaker Lakes across from his home in Cleveland Heights.
 
He also launched his company, Blue Heron Productions, in 2015 to focus on producing documentaries addressing natural history, environmental sustainability, and innovative local businesses. To feature more of the urban agriculture accounts from “Cleveland Growing Strong,” the two partnered to create the “Cleveland Food Stories” film series, which has three episodes meant to raise awareness about food security, health disparities, and the economic benefits of a local food economy.
 
“Brad is an awesome filmmaker,” says Jones. “I help people share their stories, but Brad uses his technical skill and ability to illuminate them magnificently, so I always say the part he brings is the magic.”
 
Masi often finds himself deeply inspired and motivated by the city’s “unmovable core of determination” when looking at success stories such as the Garden Valley Neighborhood House in the Kinsman neighborhood, Cleveland’s largest food pantry, which helps people address health issues and provides construction trade training programs.
 
“We’re not talking about Barack Obama or Leonardo DiCaprio; we emphasize everyday Clevelanders who make their communities better places for the people who live there,” Masi says. “It gives you a different picture of Cleveland when you realize there are so many compassionate people and so much good happening in the neighborhoods when the nightly news would suggest that nothing good ever happens there.”

Read more articles by Christopher Johnston.

Christopher Johnston has published more than 3,000 articles in publications such as American Theatre, Christian Science Monitor, Credit.com, History Magazine, The Plain Dealer, Progressive Architecture, Scientific American and Time.com. He was a stringer for The New York Times for eight years. He served as a contributing editor for Inside Business for more than six years, and he was a contributing editor for Cleveland Enterprise for more than ten years. He teaches playwriting and creative nonfiction workshops at Cleveland State University. He wrote The Way I Saw It, the memoirs of Marc Wyse, co-founder of Wyse Advertising. His book, Shattering Silences: New Approaches to Healing Survivors of Rape and Bringing Their Assailants to Justice (Skyhorse) will be published in February 2018.

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