“Ecology is flow”
Using the unplanned creation of Greenpeace by a group of hippie ecologists in the 1970s trying to stop nuclear bomb testing in Alaska as its backdrop, Jerry Rothwell‘s documentary How to Change the World shows us the trials, tribulations, fame, ego, and success of doing exactly that. It’s a savvy mix of media manipulation, contagious public speaking, and the passion to do something good amidst centuries of human-led destruction. It’s about fighting the good fight against real predatory forces working outside the ecology system and those by your side with differing opinions as to how far you should be willing to go for results. And sometimes the change becomes so impactful that it goes beyond you and your mission to evolve into public consciousness itself.
You wouldn’t think that the beginnings of Greenpeace could be as entertaining as they are, but that’s because you probably only know them as the large, international organization they are today. But back in 1971 it was little more than Robert Hunter, Patrick Moore, Paul Watson, and a ragtag band spanning journalists, doctorate-holding scientists, and sailors aboard a rickety boat captained by a man who literally joined the cause because they were paying customers. It’s during the Cold War with America fearing the bomb so it’s not hard to imagine the nation supporting these Canadians’ cause even if they’d never board a boat to Amchitka not knowing what might happen themselves. So despite the law ultimately forcing them to turn back, the world paid attention.
From there come campaigns off the coast of California to stop Russian whale poaching factories killing with impunity and in Canada to save the harp seals from slaughter. Suddenly Greenpeace offices pop up around the US with unparalleled support, egos begin clashing within the original brain trust as debt mounts and the need for assistance from those satellite offshoots grows, and the environmental activist movement balloons far larger than one trio of leaders can control. This is a key component of the film’s quest to tell us Hunter’s “five rules of engagement” to change the world because it will never come easy. Friends will be lost, feelings will be hurt, and the relationship between idealism and corporate homogeneity must be reconciled if and when success is found.
This is where Rothwell finds his drama: the infighting and the regret. All those members still with us today are interviewed to tell their side of what happened whether during the good times or the bad. Each is shown to be fond of the memories and purpose if disappointed how things turned out either via forced compromise or expulsion from power. And Hunter, the man in control despite never wanting to lead, is heard through Barry Pepper‘s narration of his flowery words spelling out every misstep and every glorious victory. There’s more guilt than joy it seems, but that’s unfortunately the cross leaders must bear. Everyone looked to him for answers and not all agreed—Bob simultaneously became God and Devil, public face and private scapegoat.
On its own, Hunter’s text and the newly produced interviews of others wouldn’t be enough to create as captivating a film as How to Change the World proves. To do that you need the right archival footage to visualize these tales as they’re recounted and the Greenpeace gang serendipitously documented everything during those early years to give Rothwell exactly that. We’re talking 16mm behind the scenes action inside their dilapidated ship and on fast-paced Zodiac boats as well as the actual conflicts as they unfold in real time. Be warned: the footage is uncensored and more brutal than words can describe. Blood pours out of a Russian ship while flayed whale skins are piled aboard their hulls and the grotesque aftermath of seal clubbing leaves bloody carcasses motionless on the ice.
One audience member couldn’t handle the latter portion during our screening because Hunter’s “bearing witness” has us watching cruelty and murder. The imagery’s powerful and disturbing and not for the squeamish even if it demands to be seen in order to find the support necessary for the worldwide admonishment of the deed. Interestingly enough the most sickening part is validity of the act (but not the despicable mode) so the seal population won’t grow out of control and eat the fish that human communities need to survive. Brigitte Bardot wants to show us how cute these animals are, but sometimes cute isn’t enough when they harm our own wellbeing. You can argue man shouldn’t interfere and needs to find another occupation besides fishing, but that’s a hard sell.
It’s this obligation to tread lightly and remember humans need protection too that haunted Hunter and ultimately helped create the fracture leading to Greenpeace’s move towards becoming a foundation. You cannot just go full speed ahead without knowing the whole story and weighing options, but many do exactly that. Rothwell shows both sides as they evolve out of comradery and I Ching divinity to disparate camps enthusiastic about the cause but not the action. Thankfully the film doesn’t ask us to choose because doing so would oppose the film’s goals. He’s showing us that whether we’re radical or conservative, we can make a difference. Oftentimes it’s just a matter of being seen. Then, if the cause is worthy, it will grow and stand on its own.
courtesy of film’s website