This article is part of Response and Responsibility, a new series of stories about the ongoing climate crisis and what the creative industries can do about it.
It might seem strange to think of the current climate catastrophe as having a “superstar”, but 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg would have a strong claim to being just that. The schoolgirl came to the world’s attention in August last year, when she began a one-student strike outside the Swedish parliament, refusing to attend school until the government considered serious changes in environmental policy in accordance with the terms set out in the UN’s Paris Agreement on climate change.
In May of this year, Greta mobilised a staggering 1.6 million school students from 125 countries to strike, making her one of the most influential figures in the debate around how we can work collectively to ensure that various climate targets and obligations are actually met.
That journey is traced in Make the World Greta Again, a new documentary profile for Vice. Co-directed by Grant Armour, director of Boy Racer, and Milène Larsson, the producer and director behind Witchcraft in Romania, the film charts a continent-wide anti-climate-change movement spearheaded by a series of incredibly driven teenagers who have found their voices in the wake of Thunberg’s ascent to stardom.
“I liked the fact that this could be a documentary about the next generation working together across Europe, as well as being an anti-Brexit film without having to signpost that,” says Grant. “What these people are doing seemed super inspiring – to the point where it made me feel slightly ashamed of my own generation.”
Swedish national Milène – who, in addition to making films for the youth media outlet, is also Vice’s Head of Video for EMEA – credits Greta’s success in engaging students and concerned adults all over the world in part to her willingness to put herself and her ideas at the forefront of things. “It’s hard to talk about climate change in a way that won’t make people switch off, because it is complicated and doesn’t have a human face,” she says. “Greta and her fellow protest organisers are giving it a clear and simple voice and that’s why I knew we had to make a film about them.”
It may seem obvious, but both Milène and Grant are keen to stress to any aspiring documentarians out there that characters are of the utmost importance. “What drew me to the story,” Grant says, “were the characters, rather than the topic of climate change per se.”
Milène agrees: “Characters and story arcs are what really matters. Don’t just pitch on the issue alone. Documentaries need personalities and stories that give life to the facts.” What makes a successful documentary is, more often than not, “access to characters and an untold story”.
The pair are hoping to use Make the World Greta Again as the jumping-off point for a series of films exploring different aspects of climate change and the ongoing battle to force the world’s governments and big businesses to implement policies and processes that can halt the feeling that we’re all about to watch the planet go up in smoke.
As with many discussions about the crisis, when chatting to Milène and Grant the concept of “accountability” comes into play. Both filmmakers are of the belief that a group of students – however numerous, impassioned and far-flung they may be – shouldn’t feel as if they have to do this on their own.
“The hope is that intergovernmental change can come about as a result of these protests and campaigns and films, as they’re being heard by politicians in many countries,” Milène says. “But there’s a difference between being heard and being listened to. It’s up to everyone to make sure those in power don’t just pay lip service, but actually keep their promises by sticking to the Paris Agreement. The world has been missing an accountability mechanism and the young climate protestors are the beginning of one – but they can’t do it alone.”
Talking to the duo, it’s clear that positivity is just as pivotal as accountability if we’re to face this problem head-on, avoiding an understandable slide into a kind of climate-nihilism. For Grant, Greta Thunberg is a prime example of how organisation and awareness raising can only lead to the kind of political activism, which can enact and aid real, discernible and ultimately necessary change. “With people like that on board, there’s no reason this crisis can’t be averted,” he says.
“It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of something so huge that doesn’t respect borders or any of the systems humans have created to organise themselves, but if a teenager can galvanise millions beyond borders, class, age and politics, change seems less impossible,” Milène says. “While the big polluters and political systems supporting them are at the root of the problem, we shouldn’t underestimate the weight of individual contribution. Change is a collective process.”