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Will Naomi Klein's Film Change Everything?

One of many calls for earth-shaking action, the doc makes oddly conventional appeal.

By Dorothy Woodend 5 Sep 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

[Editor's note: This essay was partially recalled last month to respect a review embargo on the film 'This Changes Everything' until its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Today we publish the review in full.]

What a weird time to be alive.

The volatile state of the world has taken up much of the current media discussion. The Canadian election marches on like grim death, while the seas erupt, rivers overflow and still we keep howling away at each other like crazed monkeys. It is only natural that artists, writers and filmmakers would want to weigh in on such a critical moment.

There are a number of films that tackle climate change, but none have garnered quite the same level of attention as This Changes Everything. The film adaptation of Naomi Klein's book, directed by Klein's partner Avi Lewis, had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and is now screening in theatres around North America. If you missed it at VIFF, the film will screen again at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver this week.

I've been waiting for this film for such a long time I jumped the gun writing about it. My apologies for that -- I was curious to see how the pair condensed Klein's exhaustive research into ninety-odd minutes of cinema. Since its premiere, Ms. Klein and Mr. Lewis have been busy. The Leap Manifesto occupied headlines for a couple of weeks, and sparked moral outrage and high dudgeon on all sides of the political and environmental debate.

Pundits came out in full force to decry the audacity of the ideas outlined therein. Seth Klein wrote about how the mainstream press "set their hair on fire" over what he argued was essentially a reasonable plan of action. Stated Mr. Klein: "The Globe and Mail claimed the document calls for 'upending of [the] capitalist system.' An editorial from the Prince George Citizen asserted the manifesto was released by 'some of this country's most left-wing and radical forces,' and alarmingly described it as 'a chilling document that suggests pushing Canada farther to the left than has ever been imagined for this country.'… In the National Post, the Leap prompted Conrad Black to write a column of extended, albeit creative, insults."

So, leaving aside the media scrum for a moment, and a brother defending his sister, what of the film itself? Now that we are free to talk about it, let's dish.

Ready for change?

To be perfectly honest, I was pretty disappointed. I had high hopes, perhaps a little too high. And while it is impressive for the scale of its ambition, there is something vital missing. I watched it a couple of times, looking for exactly what that missing element is. The film trots around the globe to document the stories of ordinary people engaged in epic climate struggles. In each different chapter, people whose very existence is threatened by environmental degradation on a massive scale are shown fighting back.

One interviewee in This Changes Everything describes this "environmentalism of the poor" as one of the most important forces for global change -- whether it's a small town in Greece fighting off a Canadian mining company, goat farmers battling oil and coal companies in Montana, or First Nation people versus the tar sands in Northern Alberta. The economic system that favours endless expansion and growth over ordinary people is foundering. The machine is breaking down, even as the "sacrifice zones" as Klein terms them get bigger and bigger. As one of the people interviewed in Klein's film states, "This is why the other side doesn't want to allow one single victory, because this could be the turning point."

But the victories are here, and increasingly they are startling in their own right. The recent decision from Shell Oil to suspend operations in the Arctic seemed to take everyone a little bit by surprise.

One of the key points Klein makes is that these victories are largely kept out of wider view, so as to keep the common folk from getting any uppity ideas. The film calls this movement by ordinary folk 'Blockadia" and offers it up as one of the only means of effectively forestalling the endless devouring juggernaut of development. It is impossible to witness images of people hanging off of bridges, blockading with their kayaks and canoes, even jumping into the water to put their fragile little bodies in the path of oil tankers without emotion. So too, the direct action undertaken by ordinary people to shut down one of Europe's largest coal mines inspires a radical new form of hope.

But strangely enough, as much as the film tries to harness its message to this movement of pipsqueak defiance, it is undone by its own hubris. Maybe I simply don't trust any film that covers every scene with music -- it is the cinematic equivalent of having a ring placed in your nose, and tugged along to having feels.

Or maybe it is simply that no one likes being lectured. Ms. Klein has a strong and clear literary voice, but her actual voice doesn't help the film. Beginning with the cutesy statement that Polar Bears don't do it for her, and that she is honestly bored by climate change films, she narrates throughout. This insistence on the authorial voice incites some strange form of personal rebellion. By the end, I wanted to scream, "Leave me alone, Naomi."

All of which is weird. Because, I agree with everything the film is saying, and the people depicted in it are sweet, courageous and resolute. I wanted very much to get swept up in the charge towards a new paradigm shift. A kinder, better and more cooperative world is what the film proposes. That would be nice. And maybe that is that is precisely the problem. The animating force of anger that could lift the thing -- vault it into the realm of incendiary, earth-shaking action -- is simply not there. At best, it is a pretty conventional documentary about climate change that offers up a few solutions (cooperative action, renewable energy). At worst, it makes you want to strangle a polar bear. But the fact that is will not convert even the already converted is a problem. It speaks to a failure of art.

So many horrors!

Films that address the global environment are legion, in the satanic sense of the word, at the moment. So many horrors, so little time! The effect can be weirdly enervating at a certain point, maybe because so little seems to really change, or does it?

Of all of the films that I have seen recently that address climate change none have quite risen to the challenge of capturing our curious moment in time. But there are still more to come. Charles Ferguson's new film Time to Choose premiered at the Telluride Film Festival. Ferguson's previous work Inside Job took apart the dirty dealings of the financial industry with precision and a carefully banked rage that was all the more effective for being so controlled. The anger at the centre of Inside Job gave the film an engine that powered it all the way from the Cannes Film Festival to the Oscars. The idea that Mr. Ferguson has chosen to bring his considerable gifts to the issue of climate change gave me hope, but there has been little said or written about the film since its premiere.

The timing of these films is key. Much of the world, having suffered through one of the hottest, driest summers on record followed by floods and hurricanes is feeling a little antsy about this thing called climate change. Ms. Klein's work (book, film, and accompanying talks) is really more of a larger package meant to motivate people, and bring about radical change in preparation for the 21st United Nations climate conference in Paris this autumn.

The Paris conference was also the focus of Elizabeth Kolbert's profile of Christiana Figueres, the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (U.N.F.C.C.C.). Ms. Kolbert's New Yorker piece "The Weight of the World" made a similar point to Klein and Lewis's film, namely that we stand at a turning point in human history. The moment has come when the nations of the world have to get their emitting acts together and actually undertake substantive action.

The article cites one instant when this did actually happen, most notably around ozone-depleting CFCs. It is an uncertain road, however, to lowering emissions, especially with the forces of big oil and coal mustering their forces in all corners of the globe. In closing her article, Kolbert gives the final word to Ms. Figueres who states: "You know, I think that this whole climate thing is a very interesting learning ground for humanity. I'm an anthropologist, so I look at the history of mankind. And where we are now is that we see that nations are interlinked, inextricably, and that what one does has an impact on the others... So I look at all of this and I go, This is so cool -- to be alive right now!"

Cool! An interesting choice of words, but perhaps weirdly appropriate with regards to global warming. This is a point that Naomi Klein makes also in This Changes Everything, namely that there is a bright side to these dark days that we're living in. The film examines people-driven action around the world, from German citizens taking back control of their power systems to villagers in India rallying against a coal-powered energy plant (in what are charmingly termed "pollution mutinies"). These are all very nice stories, but as a number of critics have pointed out, they are also dangerously simplistic, and perhaps even weirdly condescending to audiences.

In the face of genuine catastrophe, or as Kolbert refers to it in the language of UN administrators "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system" which means total global collapse, will humans actually get their shit together? I don't know. The opportunity to address not only climate change, but also systemic poverty, injustice and oppression is also on the table.

Perhaps this is why it so frustrating to witness the limpness of the films on offer. This Changes Everything makes an effort to document individual stories of struggle to protect the environment, but where there should be emotion, there is only a curious void. The time, attention and commitment to the cause of addressing climate change are certainly there, leavened with heaping helpings of swelling strings. But even scenes that depict the climate change conference attendees howling with glee at the image of a polar bear shitting on an ice floe are strangely limp.

Climate change deniers get little more than an eye roll from Ms. Klein on camera. For a better evisceration, you can read her original article about the conference here. The discussion about the voracious nature of capitalism, that occupies a goodly portion of Klein's book, is also given scant attention in the film. The struggle over a goldmine in Greece to leads to some discussion about austerity measures as a return of the old model of domination -- of the economic machine triumphant -- but that's about it.

Films with impact

If the film's intent was to change everything, I don't hold out much hope, but films can and do make a difference. If you don't believe me, just ask SeaWorld. Films like Blackfish, Virunga, or more recently How to Change the World demonstrate that a story well told can have enormous impact. Another film made by a young woman, with little more than tenacity and grit is Victoria Lean's film After the Last River, which opens the Planet in Focus Festival in Toronto on Oct. 21, 2015.

Another documentary that had remarkable impact was Chai Jing's Under the Dome that explored the scale of the pollution problem in China During the week that film was available to screen online, it racked up some 200 millions views. Ms. Klein references the film as example of what is possible when people set out to tell the stories that most need to be told. Jing's film may have garnered the lion's share of media attention, but many artists and filmmakers in China are tackling the state of their country with unprecedented despair and ferocity.

Whether it is a film about epidemic levels of cancer in small villages, or the massive development of the countryside, the stories they tell are often staggering. But these films are also extremely hard to find, often because they are made with no money, have no distribution and actively suppressed by the Chinese authorities. Still filmmakers find a way. I saw a film from a young Chinese filmmaker last year that documented the impact of pollution on the health of rural Chinese people. (Cancer is only the beginning.) The film is ragged, rough and filled with palpable grief and rage. It was almost unbearable to watch.

Unlike Chinese independent filmmakers, Klein and Lewis have the active support of some very moneyed and powerful people. The list of Hollywood folk credited includes Seth Rogen, Danny Glover, and Pamela Anderson, among others. This is not a slight against Ms. Klein and Mr. Lewis, simply the truth. They come from privilege and it informs their work. I think this is why I was disappointed with the film. For all the effort, money, and power poured into it, it should be better than it is. I don't think it will change everything, even though everything really needs to change.  [Tyee]

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