First came the powerful polemic by Naomi Klein making the case that climate change is a civilizational wake-up call alerting us to the fundamental fuck-ups of free market capitalism. Now comes the momentum-building film by Klein’s partner, Avi Lewis, to shine a light on the human stories in communities living in or near “sacrifice zones.” From the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation’s legal battle against tar sands to South Indian villagers shutting down a proposed coal fired plant, This Changes Everything [see review] takes us to the front lines in the fight for climate justice. NOW chats with director Avi Lewis about the rousing film narrated by Klein and inspired by her epic bestseller.
On making a climate change film without polar bears and glaciers.
Actually, we’ve gotten beaten up in some reviews because Naomi starts by confessing that she’s always kind of hated climate films. We wanted to start the film where we feel people are at with this subject. After a generation of big environmental groups trying to scare us into changing, people have turned away from the topic. What if, instead, we recast the climate crisis as a crisis that goes to the root of our unfair and unequal economic system, that produces tremendous fountains of wealth for the very top and a lot of misery and dissatisfaction for the vast majority? What the film tries to do is connect the dots so people will actually feel like there’s a new way to engage with the problem. It’s a way that offers a tremendous amount of possibility for wider social transformation.
On squeezing a 500-page treatise into a 90-minute movie.
Luckily, I never had to try. We were making the book and the film in tandem. The book lays out arguments and marshalls evidence. The film shows emotion, bringing you into people’s real lives and struggles. But we struggled ourselves in the edit because we were trying to make too many of the book’s central arguments. We realized we had to stop trying to do anything like the book in the film.
On the 400-year-old story that’s killing us all.
When you go to the Alberta tar sands, when you go to the Powder River Basin, when you go China, you see this narrative inscribed on every landscape, and it’s the guiding idea of our economy, that we can extract endlessly and pollute endlessly, that nature is an inexhaustible cornucopia. The planet is screaming at us that this is not so.
On the hard part about making a film about a global movement.
It’s not easy to make documentaries about movements, because it is a genre that traditionally privileges the individual story, the hero narrative that so much film falls into. But rather than focus on one heroic trajectory, we pushed ourselves to explore communities and to hear multiple voices [to] create a kind of symphony of voices from the front lines around the world.
On whether “extreme extraction” resistance movement, Blockadia, can save us from self-destruction.
Blockadia is the defiant no to ripping up and gouging the earth, but it’s also the most surprising and inspiring site of the yes, as people develop local community alternatives. The movement globally does have the potential to stop not just the destructive economy but to plant real seeds for a regenerative, reciprocal one. Crystal Lameman, one of the main characters in the film, is working now on a solar project for the Beaver Lake Cree Nation. What they’re teaching us is that the switch to alternatives can’t be done one struggle and one community at a time. This should be policy on a national level. Blockadia is actually having a measurable impact on the political class. Look at Hilary Clinton’s turnaround on Keystone.
On the power of community screenings.
One of the great gifts of a film like this is that it can serve as a meeting place for people. That’s guided our whole attitude. We’re working with movement partners all over the world who use the film to raise money to bring in other people in their communities whom they wouldn’t otherwise reach. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace organized a screening in Stockholm. One of the organizers asked the audience how many people had ever put their bodies on the line to stop a project. A couple of dozen people stood up and the theatre erupted in applause. Then he asked how many would consider putting their bodies on the line in a future struggle and half the theatre stood up. To me that’s an example of the power of the people to come together and share an experience and then find the will to do something about it.
On not ending the film with a list of recommended actions.
I did that so many times in different cuts, and it always sucked. It felt tacked on, like a laundry list. Finally I let it go. Before the film came out, the Leap Manifesto had emerged and it felt so right to put the policy solutions in a policy document and take them out of the goddamn film so it could just be a movie.
On the media ganging up on the Leap Manifesto and calling it a publicity stunt for the film.
It’s absolutely hilarious. The first rule of marketing is don’t distract from the product, and here we are the first week that our film has a world premiere, and we launch this completely separate thing with a different name, possibly causing confusion and hurting the film in commercial terms. But who cares? This is the work of our lives. The political project [the manifesto] is the next phase of our book and film project. The manifesto itself was relentlessly misrepresented and mis-described in mainstream media in incredibly ideological terms, with a huge amount of red-baiting, [which] I thought was pretty shocking. I think the document, as common-sense and reasonable as it is, represents a real challenge to the guardians of this very constrained status quo.
On the Canadian election largely ignoring climate issues.
I understand that politicians aren’t rushing to the most radical proposals even if I happen to think they’re completely common-sense, but I do think Canadians are left hungry by the proposals on the table and frustrated by the very narrow scope of what this small class of Canadians in politics and the media say is possible. We want more, we deserve more, we need more. I just hope that post-election there’ll be some sort of scenario, a vulnerable coalition of vaguely progressive leaders that will feel pressure to be much more ambitious. .
On Paris climate talks, pipelines and running like a buffalo.
It’s a critical time, historically. We’re heading into climate talks in Paris at the end of the year, the divestment movement is surging, democratic candidates are falling over each other to proclaim their distaste for the Keystone XL pipeline. Despite the fact that Canadian politicians are generally ignoring climate in the election campaign, we’re convinced that for Cana-dians it’s a huge issue. None of these pipelines we’re fighting in Canada have been built yet. We’re seeing tons of things to celebrate. But we’re not winning. Overall, we’ve got so much changing to do in a short time. There’s no time for complacency – it’s time to double down. This is the starting line not the finish line. It’s run like a buffalo time.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This Changes Everything opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday (October 9). It’s available on iTunes/VOD November 3, and opens at community screenings globally November 1.