How to Change the World – DVD review

A lot of environmental documentaries are earnest and well intentioned, but they also tend to be a little dull and are often preaching to the converted. Which makes this fascinating, revealing and provocative warts and-all look at the origins of the environmentalist activist group Greenpeace all the more interesting when compared to most other environmental documentaries. There are lots of surprising revelations about the early years of the organisation and its struggle to gain recognition and respectability when many first saw them as a bunch of dissatisfied hippies.

Greenpeace actually grew out of the anti-nuclear protests of the early 70s when a bunch of hippy types wanted to protest Nixon’s nuclear tests on Amchitka, a remote island off the west coast of Alaska. Robert Hunter was a journalist in Vancouver who was vocal in his opposition to the tests. With a bunch of like minded activists, Hunter hired a run-down old fishing boat and tried to sail close to the detonation site. The Coast Guard forced the ship to turn back. The tests went ahead as planned, but the activists had focused attention on the potential dangers associated with the nuclear bomb. They were regarded as heroes on their return.

But then Hunter and the crew decided that there other equally worthy causes. They took on a Russian fleet to protest against whaling. Using zodiac rafts they put themselves between the massive Russian ships and the whales, risking their lives. But Hunter was also a man ahead of his time in his awareness of the power of images to sway people. He had four simple rules to make his protest movement successful.

Long before the Internet or Youtube had the power to make images go viral, Hunter coined the phrase “mind bomb” to use powerful images to push their point of view. And he knew how to use the media. The activists also filmed their activities using handheld 16mm cameras. The result was some quite disturbing and shocking images as the sea runs red with blood here that effectively convey the horrors and barbarity of whaling. Greenpeace effectively roused the collective consciousness of a generation about the horror of the slaughter of these beautiful and intelligent creatures for commercial purposes.

Hunter reluctantly assumed the mantle of leader of Greenpeace. But soon the organisation began to fray, with personality clashes, internal tensions, hubris, egos, power struggles and differing opinions as to how to tackle various issues began to take a toll. It came to head when Greenpeace rallied against the annual Canadian slaughter of seal pups. While Paul Watson wanted to dye the seal fur to make them worthless, Hunter was more willing to negotiate a solution knowing that the financial livelihood of a community was at stake.

Former community artist turned documentary filmmaker Jerry Rothwell (Donor Unknown, etc) has gained access to some 1500 cans of film, a wealth of archival footage shot by Greenpeace activists themselves, which he has edited into this pacy and dramatic film. But the real stroke of brilliance here is interviewing many of those former founding members forty years after these momentous events. They look back on those early events from a new perspective and they talk about their regrets and reevaluate their actions. Ironically, Patrick Moore, another founding member, has undergone a change of attitude since those heady days and has distanced himself from the organisation. He is now a climate change denier.

Hunter died in 2005, but actor Barry Pepper gives him a voice as he reads from his writings, which gives some insights into his vision for saving the planet.

The sometimes gripping footage is accompanied by a great soundtrack that features the likes of Joni Mitchell, Canned Heat and Pink Floyd, music that is also evocative of that era of protests and the beginnings of the activist movement. Fascinating stuff, and one of the must see documentaries of the year!

Greg King