Whether you’re a fan of Greenpeace or not, this film will latch onto some emotion or opinion and make you think about it. How to Change the World is ambitious as its title suggests, taking on the difficult task of chronicling the birth of what is now the world’s most renowned environmental group. Most of the current generation have only seen Greenpeace as the huge organisation it is today, but director Jerry Rothwell takes us back in time to the early 70s to show us the people behind the movement, as it developed from vague yet virtuous ideals into a fully-fledged, well oiled protest machine.
The documentary is interlaced with beautiful 16mm archive footage, chillingly narrated by Barry Pepper, along with modern day interviews with the original Greenpeace founders. We begin at Amchitka island, Alaska, where a few rag-tag hippies protest against an upcoming nuclear weapons test by the US government. The atmosphere is tense and we can plainly see that the group’s purpose is yet to be defined, they are not Greenpeace at this point, but a chaotic band of beliefs, non-beliefs, anger, fear and passion. This period is described as difficult by those present, because there isn’t a single goal or path they can collectively pull towards, just a vague notion of ‘stop doing these things’, and whilst many may have thought at the time that they all banded together for the common good, one interviewee states that “In reality we spent most of our time at eachother’s throats”.
A eureka moment dawns later when the group’s attention is drawn to the plight of the whales. Fair warning, the footage is not for the faint hearted; watching what can only be described as butchery is difficult, but necessary if you’re to fully contemplate the ecological and moral consequences of this industry (one given statistic explains starkly that in only a few centuries, commercial whaling has reduced global whale populations by about 90%). In the mid-70s some of team attempt to get between a soviet ship and a whale pod off the coast of California; we see harpoons being fired barely 15ft above the diminutive Greenpeace vessels, the animals struggle helplessly against their pursuers, and the ocean fades to red. The change of direction from protesting against nuclear weapons to protecting marine mammals was initially met with scepticism from some members, but this resultant footage is what truly catapults them onto the global stage. This was moment that launched the modern environmental movement, and it’s hard not to be in awe.
Though it drags at times, How to Change the World certainly leaves an impression. Brilliant archive footage and sumptuous narration make it an engrossing, though somewhat chilling watch. This isn’t what you’d call a history or timeline of Greenpeace, more an explanation of how little seeds of ideas grew into a collective, ecological conscience, for which we as a species should be grateful for.
Dir: Jerry Rothwell
Scr: Jerry Rothwell
Featuring: Barry Pepper, Bill Darnell, David Garrick, Bobbi Hunter
Prd: Bous De Jong, Al Morrow
DOP: Ben Lichty
Music: Lesley Barber
Run time: 110 mins
How to Change the World nationwide satellite Q&A screening on 9 September, in cinemas from 11 September.
Book tickets here.