This fascinating insight chronicles the adventures of an eclectic group of young pioneers who … well … changed the world. These were Canadian hippie journalists, photographers, musicians, scientists and American draft dodgers who set out to stop Richard Nixon’s atomic bomb tests in Amchitka, Alaska and end up creating a worldwide green movement.
Greenpeace was founded on the basis of tight knit, passionate friendships forged in Vancouver in the early 1970s. Together these people pioneered a template for environmental activism that mixed daring iconic feats with extensive media coverage. They placed small rubber inflatables between harpooners and whales, blocked icebreaking sealing ships with their bodies and sprayed the pelts of baby seals with dye to make them valueless in the fur market. The group had a prescient understanding of the power of media, knowing that the advent of global mass communications meant that the image had become the most effective tool for change. But, by the summer of 1977 Greenpeace Vancouver was suing Greenpeace San Francisco and the organisation had become a victim of its own anarchic roots – saddled with large debts and frequent in-fighting.
How To Change The World draws on interviews with the key players and hitherto unseen archival footage, which brings these characters and their intense, sometimes eccentric and often dangerous world alive. Somehow the group transcended the contradictions of its members to undertake a series of brave and significant environmental protests. The film spans the period from 1971 to 1979. We witness the initial expedition to the nuclear test zone, the first whale and seal campaigns and the founders relinquish their central role to create Greenpeace International.
At the heart of the movie is Bob Hunter, a charismatic journalist who had written science fiction comics at the age of 10. Hunter managed to bind together the “mystics and the mechanics” into a group with a single purpose, often at huge personal cost. He may not have been a natural born leader and he certainly made mistakes, but he became revered. The story is framed by his first person narrative drawn from his writings and journals about Greenpeace.
How To Change The World is an intimate portrait of the group’s original members and of activism itself – idealism versus pragmatism, principle versus compromise. Greenpeace agreed that a handful of people could change the world; they just couldn’t always agree on how to do it.
Writer and director Jerry Rothwell has crafted a heartfelt, deeply moving and absorbing documentary. After all, you can’t possibly look at majestic whales being strung up on massive ships or beautiful seal cubs being clubbed to death leaving massive trails of blood and not be shocked and revolted. But, while that is – of course – important in highlighting what the activism is all about, the majority of the movie is given over to the group’s dynamic. For all the world, it appears that Greenpeace emerged almost by accident, as if those involved from the outset didn’t have the organisational skills to make it happen and yet it did anyway. I love that about this true story, which clearly shows the discord between members of the group in the wake of their idealism.
Thanks goodness Rothwell had the archival footage. In fact, in the vaults of the Greenpeace archives in Amsterdam lay some 1,500 silver cans of 16mm film, mostly unopened since the 1970s. I regard How to Change the World as an important time capsule. Incidentally, while the clear focus is Greenpeace, we also see the emergence of a second environmental group, Sea Shepherd.
Rated M, it scores a 7½ to 8 out of 10.
Director: Jerry Rothwell
Release date: 17 September 2015 (limited)
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television