2015 has so far been a stellar year for documentary filmmaking. We’ve seen an acceptance of documentary as a form of big budget film entertainment like never before. We’ve seen documentaries become both more entertaining but also more serious; and although, with films like Shoah, there has never been any doubt about film’s ability to present life-changing events, the ease with which they are able to do so today is fantastic – so too is the public’s willingness to embrace them. So this year already we’ve had, in The Look of Silence, a film that will be viewed and spoken about for generations to come, and quite a few wonderful films that speak at length about generations gone by. Films like Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and Gibney’s Going Clear both deal in provocative history and fantastic, rousing footage; both are about controversial organizations that contain within themselves the method of their own destruction and both give us characters that live long in our histories.
Add to these above two now Jerry Rothwell’s wonderful and passionate portrait of the Greenpeace movement How To Change The World. Made up almost entirely of brilliant period footage and contemporary interviews with all but one of the main characters, How To Change The World shows us the incredible beginnings, startling rise and inevitable fall of one of the most divisive organisations in modern history.
And we get to witness all of this through the archive footage, which, despite being the staple of the historical documentary of any value, is of special note here – most of it coming from the presumably huge Greenpeace archives and has never been seen before. Though I did find its use a little manipulative in the way it is so firmly entrenched in its and their conviction, but this is a product of the filmmakers and shouldn’t (though does a bit) reflect on the Greenpeacers as the footage used is all theirs. The fact that Hunter and his crew make a conscious decision from the outset to film all of their endeavours (which makes sense really seeing as exposure was one of their main goals) has provided us with some truly extraordinary and, let’s not deny it, brutal, documents of everything they did.
How To Change The World begins, quite appropriately, at the beginning, with the group’s initial scrambling to travel out to Amchitka, to attempt to prevent a nuclear test. The initial thrust of the movement comes from Bob Hunter, activist and idealistic journalist in Vancouver, Canada. We are told immediately, perhaps in an attempt to justify what we later see, that Hunter is something of an incredible hippie, both in his staunch socio-eco-political views, and also in his willingness to imbibe whatever he sees fit. We are also introduced here to some of the supporting players of the piece – to Ron Precious, who would be the one to capture most of the group’s footage, and John Cormack, whose boat would be the initial means of operation. Had he known perhaps just how quickly and dangerously the movement would grow, he may have been a bit more reticent. Though that could be said for most of those involved.
I stated in my review of Best Of Enemies that there is a joy in watching people, who are the best at what they do, in full flight; there is a similar joy too in watching movements and organizations that have become iconic and that, yes, attempted to change the world, begin. I think we’ve become somewhat inured to seeing news play out before us, seeing things on television that hit us before they have any chance to become important, and so this level of retrospect is doubly impactful – for instance, when Hunter and his crew track down a Russian “floating slaughterhouse” in their dinghies and place themselves between the harpoons and the illegal, undersize whales, we see the birth of an ideal that adds to our world, both images (the daring and fearless campaigners) and words (Save the Whales!) all shot by the group in the midst of the campaign action. This birth has had forty-odd years to generate importance and meaning and has not just flitted by us in a Facebook feed or a minor Twitter-storm. Modern activism is, for the most part, easy and non-committal and so this footage is of great historical, yes, but also social and moral value.
And it is also unfortunately in these moral values that the cracks in Greenpeace’s armour began to show. Hunter is portrayed pretty much from the beginning as the reluctant leader, uncomfortable with his de facto authority and responsibility for not just a movement, but the people involved in it too. Along with his two lieutenants, for want of a better word, Paul Watson and Patrick Moore, young fearless sailor and crazy scientist respectively, Hunter and his rag-tag bunch of eco-heroes go literally to the ends of the earth in their attempts to bring their desire to change the world to the world itself. Despite the involvement of many others however, (some of whom barely get a mention despite being involved in the groups early Alaskan beginnings) How To Change The World makes it a point to concentrate almost solely on the Hunter-Moore-Watson group.
As is always the case with these kinds of things though, egos and personalities grow apart as the movement gets bigger and more difficult to control. And there is a certain hypocrisy involved in complaining about a worldwide eco-movement going worldwide. As Hunter begins to lose himself to the twin evils of drugs and alcohol, Moore loses himself to big business (in the film’s main “twist”) and Watson is ousted over disagreements concerning seals. And all the while the women involved are there seemingly just to tell us about these brave men’s antics.
Structurally the film is very smooth, and despite the basic archive-footage/interview method, there are a few stylistic quirks that set How To Change The World apart from other films like this. There are intertitles, taken presumably from Hunter’s writings which let us in on the rules upon which Hunter based his movement, rules which have become commonplace these days, such as the planting of “mind-bombs” (ostensibly the desire to go viral) which became a form of media messaging. These passages of Hunter’s are read by Barry Pepper and the narration is provided by the ever wonderful Johnny Depp, and their voices fit the footage and the time-period perfectly – there is a great “stoned” quality to Depp’s voice. Coupled with the music choices Rothwell has made, songs from Pink Floyd, Country Joe and the Fish and Canned Heat, the grainy nature of much of the footage and the laid-back voices we get perfectly give us a sense of hazed-out determination.
Some of the stylistic choices are not as successful though. The animation does seem a bit tacked on as an afterthought to provide an element of “psychedelic” context and if you want your counter-culture documentary to reach to as many people as possible and still retain its counter-culture cool, get Johnny Depp to narrate it. There is also an undeniably masculine tint to this film – whether the female members of the movement were as little involved as the film seems to suggest is not for me to say, though their presence in all the interviews and the footage would seem to say otherwise.
How To Change The World then is yet another fantastic documentary about an incredible moment in history – a moment that many would like to believe is continuing today. However much good they did though, and despite many advancements in ecological law-making, I think even they would be forced to admit that not very much has actually changed.
More details about the film, including show-times near you, at howtochangetheworldfilm.com
Director: Jerry Rothwell
Writer: Jerry Rothwell
Stars: Bill Darnell, David Garrick, Bobbi Hunter
Runtime: Canada, UK
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