In celebration of summer and outdoor activities, Influence Film Club is embracing nature, our environment, and the act of protecting it by featuring HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD as our June film of the month. In the film, director Jerry Rothwell delves into the archives to discover the origins of Greenpeace, arguably the most well known non-governmental environmental agency in the world.
Beginning with its formation in the early 1970s and their first activist campaign in Alaska, Rothwell follows the group’s initial successes, failures, and growing pains as he pieces together old footage with contemporary recollections from the colorful cast of characters involved during the agency’s formative years. If you’ve ever wondered how to start an organization, big or small, to make a change in the world, or put a good idea into action and help it grow, watch this documentary! The Greenpeace story includes words of wisdom, guiding steps, and important lessons for all of those hoping to be world change makers, but also for anyone interested in human nature and working together toward a common goal.
After sitting down with Jerry last year at Sheffield Doc/Fest, we were excited to get his take on documentary filmmaking, transformation, and digging into the Greenpeace film archive.
What is it that draws you to documentary film?
I think it’s the improvisatory side of documentary that grabs me. Making a documentary is a kind of dance with the real world: you can have preconceived ideas but they always have to develop in response to the unfolding and elusive reality you are portraying. The best documentaries are a journey of discovery for the filmmaker as well as for the audience.
I heard a story about Howard Hawks recently that made me think about the differences between fiction and documentary storytelling. When Hawks adapted The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler he phoned Chandler to ask him about a detail in the plot that was puzzling him. “Who killed the chauffeur?,” he asked the writer. “Damned if I know” replied Chandler. The world of a fiction is, by definition, sealed. Documentaries, on the other hand, always refer out to the wider reality from which the story is drawn.
This means that documentary stories are always unresolved. Life goes on in the world the film is portraying. It is left to the audience to do the job of finding resolution, so documentaries have a great power to motivate their audience to engage, beyond the limits of the film, in the lives and issues they explore. It might be as simple as asking ‘What’s that person doing now?’ or ‘How does my life relate to theirs?’, but it motivates action, empathy and engagement.
What is your history with documentary? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?
My films to date have been about very different subjects – a punk band, a lone sailor, a sperm donor, two girls from an Ethiopian village, a wine fraudster – though maybe there is a similar approach to each story. Somebody told me they thought a common theme was friendship and tested loyalty–and that may be true, though it’s not conscious. I try and find stories where there is the possibility of transformation happening on many levels–personally, interpersonally (in people’s relationships), and socially. After finishing a film, I tend to want to do something really different–in subject matter and approach–which is maybe why the themes are so varied. It’s one of the pleasures of documentary making, to plunge into an area you maybe don’t know much about and spend time with those for whom it’s an everyday experience.
Was your experience making this film like any of the other filmmaking experience you have had? How was it similar or different?
Making a film where the story is historical is a different challenge to making one where events are unfolding as you shoot–and each requires its own approach. Both archive films and those shot contemporaneously require a strong relationship with the subject and inevitably the finished film is just one possible view. I tend to work in the same way for both–starting with a sense of a rough possible shape, which gradually adds detail and depth as production develops. In an archive film, watching archive for the first time is a bit like shooting–it sparks ideas and the shape of the film develops in an interaction with the material.
You had an extraordinary wealth of archive footage at your fingertips when it came to making HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD. What was it like working with this footage? What were its strengths and limitations?
Greenpeace was very supportive of our exploration of the archive and allowed us access to it without having any editorial control over the film, which was important to me. I started with the shape of a story based on Hunter’s writings, so I was looking for archive material that would help tell that narrative, but then, working with editor Jim Scott, the archive itself started to dictate how particular scenes worked. There were areas where the Greenpeace footage was very strong (for example the first anti-whaling campaign) and areas where there was very little (for example of meetings and behind-the scenes proceedings). We did a lot of research looking for archive held by others, so maybe 30% of the archive in the film comes from other sources – news, personal archive, photos. I think in total, including all the archive and the interviews, we had around 100 hours to work with, of which maybe 20 hours was shot by the original Greenpeace crews. There were two suitcases of quarter inch reel to reel tape which we knew was the audio to some of the footage, and reuniting those with the right pictures and synchronizing them was a labour of love.
The footage shot by the Greenpeace crews was great to work with because we were able to access the original rushes footage – good, clean 16mm – which hadn’t been already cut. That allowed us to edit the footage much more freely and to include moments before and after the point where you’d usually cut. This footage had been shot for a particular, perhaps even propagandist, effect and at one point in the film Bob Hunter talks about Greenpeace’s early campaigns as a kind of performance, so being able to play with the footage in that way helped us to explore that idea.
What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Has it stirred up some strong opinions?
We’ve now screened the film in over 40 countries and in each I’ve found myself in conversations with audiences about the dynamics of social change today: in Spain, where the anti-austerity party Podemos was entering Parliament and Catalunya was edging towards independence; in Kiev, fresh from the bloody protests in Maidan which toppled a president; in Mexico, where the missing 43 inspired a nationwide outcry against the government; and even in Britain and the US where Corbyn and Sanders were unexpectedly making discussion of socialism mainstream once again. The tensions shown in the film – between idealism and pragmatism, vision and compromise – currently seem to be at the forefront of people’s minds.
The conversations circle around the same dilemmas. How do we square the visionary idealism required to imagine a better world, with the pragmatic politics that might take us there? What’s the relationship between demanding change (campaigning, protesting speaking out) and making change (through community action, government, political parties)? How does a movement relate to the organizations it gives birth to? And what part do stories and images play in this process?
Often after watching documentaries, people wonder what the one most important thing they can do is. What is this one thing you would recommend to someone after watching HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD?
For me one of the legacies of the story of the early Greenpeace is that just a handful of people who were very focused on what they wanted to achieve can have an astonishing impact. I hope their powerful example inspires people to engage in the issues that affect their communities, focus on specific things they want to change, build broad coalitions, avoid being distracted by internal politics and think big in the way they communicate about their activism.
What would your documentary playlist consist of?
My list of favorite docs is constantly changing – but here are six I’d recommend today, all of them in different ways trying to explore elusive and contested truths:
The Three Rooms Of Melancholia (2004) – Pirjo Honkasalo’s lyrical and distressing film about the Chechnyan conflict
Stories We Tell (2012) – Sarah Polley’s exploration of her family’s secrets navigating the borders of fact and fiction
The Look Of Silence (2014) – Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to his disturbing The Act Of Killing which is as affecting and uncompromising.
The Ark (1993)– Molly Dineen’s series about London Zoo as Thatcherite business management permeates the Royal Zoological Society.
The Thin Blue Line (1989) – Errol Morris’ film about a miscarriage of justice that playing historical events like a thriller but one with profound ambiguity.
The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987) – a crazy, morally challenging film about war, silence and justice as Kazuo Hara follows a world war two veteran demanding answers from his military officers about the destruction of his regiment.
HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD is Influence Film Club’s featured film for June. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together. Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.
Interview by: Isis Graham