Will Naomi Klein's Film on Global Warming Change Everything?

Sometimes I have a sinking feeling that all of the films, books, essays and performances that we in the arts carefully write about, think about, worry endlessly about, don't actually change very much. Maybe the effect is cumulative, or maybe that is just what we tell ourselves, so that we can keep going.


This thought occurred to me the other day while watching the film adaptation of Naomi Klein's book This Changes Everything, directed by Klein's partner Avi Lewis. The film will have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. After that, prepare for additional festival screenings (the film plays at Vancouver's International Film Festival on Oct. 7) before a major commercial release.

If you're curious about how the film adapts the book's exhaustive research into 90-odd minutes, you will have to wait and make your own assessment in a few weeks' time. It is a challenging, perhaps almost impossible undertaking. The book is impressive for the scale of its ambition (nothing less than saving the world, y'all). I had to reread many sections, simply to make certain I had gotten it all in.

My overarching takeaway was not one of unremitting horror, although there are certainly moments of that, but respect for Klein's careful, sustained, and unrelenting commitment to research. Translating this amount of information into images and narrative is something else. (How to visually represent 30 pages of appendices would keep anyone up at night.) While you wait for the film's release, there are number of other environmental docs about to drop.

En route to Paris

Another new film that tackles the issue of climate change is Charles Ferguson's Time to Choose premiering 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 fury 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 Ferguson has chosen to bring his considerable gifts to the issue of climate change gives me hope, but is a fragile thing. The number of films that address the global environment are legion, in the satanic sense of the word. 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?

The timing of these films is key. Much of the world, having suffered through one of the hottest, driest summers on record is feeling a little antsy about this thing called climate change. 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.). Kolbert' piece "The Weight of the World" made a similar point to Klein's work, 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.

"And I think this agreement in Paris is going to be the first time that nations come together in that realization. It's not going to be the last, because as we proceed into the 21st century there are going to be more and more challenges that need that planetary awareness. But this is the first, and it's actually very exciting. 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 in her book, namely that there is a bright side to these dark days that we're living in. 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, humans might actually get their shit together. The opportunity to address not only climate change, but also systemic poverty, injustice and oppression is also on the table.

Seismic shifts of the heart

I am of a couple of different minds about whether real change will actually happen or not. "I've never met a single person who changed because of a movie or a book," said my mother the other day. I don't know if I agree, people evolve in incremental bits and sudden lurches, when the tectonic plates in heart and mind shift without warning and all of a sudden you're in an entirely new country. You see it in the weirdest places sometimes. In the global howl of outrage over the death of Cecil the Lion, or the photo of little Alan Kurdi. Sometimes a single photograph can bring about a seismic shift.

Klein's book ascribes the power to bring about substantive and radical change to people who seemingly have the least amount of power. She examines people-driven campaigns around the world. One of the key points she makes is that these victories are largely kept out of wider view, so as to keep the common folk from getting any uppity ideas.

You can see this yourself with things like the Occupy Movement, who were the first people to help out after Hurricane Sandy decimated New York. So, too, Occupy's campaign to buy back student loan debt was little covered by mainstream media. In our fragile human hearts, there is a "morality bedrock" as Christiana Figueres calls it, that says it is wrong to take more than we need, wrong to let a child drown in the ocean instead of offering sanctuary, wrong to be greedy and careless. Unless you're one of the Koch Brothers, that is.

When pipsqueak defiance wins

Here is where 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. If you haven't seen How To Change the World yet, you're in luck, as the film will be screening at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver in the next few weeks. In the U.K., it is opening across the country.

It is a film that will remind you that Canada, and Vancouver especially, once played a significant role in creating the modern environmental movement. The film charts the rise and fall of Greenpeace through the figure of Bob Hunter, who helped found the organization in Vancouver some 40 years ago. When I first saw the film last year, the thing that most struck me was how the most humble of things can bring about amazing changes. A bunch of raggedy hippies in an old fishing boat stood down the U.S. military.

Another documentary that had remarkable impact was Chai Jing's film 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. Chai 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.

That same quality of pipsqueak defiance popped up again more recently when activists and ordinary people stopped oil tankers on their way to the arctic. The 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 is impossible to witness without emotion. So too, the direct action undertaken by ordinary people to shut down one of Europe's largest coal mines. These are all inspiring stories and images, but what happens after the cameras stop rolling is perhaps the most critical part.

A recent conversation with a filmmaker friend of mine, who is herself making a documentary about the tarsands and the people who serve them, added a note of skepticism. As I waxed rhapsodic about direction action, blockades and human courage, she rightly asked, "But what happened afterwards?" As I paused for breath, she answered her own question. "Nothing." It isn't a matter of one action, one media campaign or one film, but remaking human nature that will be the real challenge. As my friend explained, it's not about denying people access to food and water; it's about buying a fancy new truck and rationalizing that desire.

I don't know if one book or one film will really change everything. But the endless stream of them, coming one after the other, just might.

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