In “How to Change The World,” director Jerry Rothwell unearths extraordinary footage to tell a story about fighting for a cause — both by outlining the terms of the fight and the people engaged in it.
As an organization, Greenpeace has been fighting for maintaining Earth’s natural environments for decades. Yet while it’s in 40 different countries, and emboldened by almost three million supporters, the organization originally began with a group of hippies protesting nuclear bomb testing in Vancouver.
From this starting point, documentarian Rothwell (“Donor Unknown, “Deep Water”) explores the origin story of one of the most influential activist movements in history.
“How to Change the World” structures its story around five steps to leaving a truly lasting impact on the world. Told through the writings of journalist-turned-activist Robert “Bob” Hunter, the reluctant leader of the movement. The writings are narrated by Emmy-winning actor Barry Pepper (“The Kennedys”) and strung together using never-before-seen archival footage from the many campaigns, psychedelic animation, and interviews with the key members of Greenpeace who experienced it all.
Hunter, who led the first Greenpeace campaign against nuclear testing in Amchitka, Alaska back in 1969, assembled a ragtag team of hippies, sailors, photographers, and scientists to sail to Amchitka to protest the bomb detonation. While they failed to stop the detonation, a kinship was born between the men and their efforts receive huge media coverage. From there, a powerful movement took shape. With its momentum building, the motley crew set their sight on protesting Russian commercial whaling. With a bigger crew, and film stock to record and document their entire voyage, they sailed through the Pacific in search of whaling ships. While their protest went ignored, they managed to capture the footage of the brutal whaling process. After releasing it to the media, their influence on the world reached its peak, and the movement grew into an organization with multiple offices around the country.
However, as Greenpeace began to spread around the world, Hunter was losing focus and drive, a struggle for power broke out between the original crew, changing the movement forever.
While the interviews with the crew deepen the story, it’s the archival footage where the film truly shines. Edited together with photography from the campaigns as well, these sequences are raw and vibrant. Hunter knew that in order to draw attention to their cause, they had to show audiences rather than tell, and the footage does not disappoint in that regard.
Full of heart-wrenching imagery, with a score that emphasizes the weight of its content, the footage captures some of their most iconic moments in Greenpeace history. The material speaks for itself, almost to the point that the narration and interviews sometimes feel heavy-handed and unnecessary; similarly, some of the animation feels out of sync with the authentic footage. There also times where the filmmaker seems to take sides during conflicts within the group, and doesn’t allow the players to explain themselves. Nevertheless, being able to hear the recollections of the key players in these campaigns is a pivotal part of the film. The subjects are outspoken and honest, and the interviews are beautifully captured.
All in all, “How to Change the World” not only serves as a history lesson, but also as a portrait of Hunter, as we see him at his best and worst. His evolution from bold activist to the leading voice in environmental preservation is an undeniably powerful evolution that emphasizes the message that anyone can alter global events with the right blend passion and commitment. Hunter himself comes across as an ego-free eccentric who cares for his peers and the environment in equal doses. The film also shows that every leader needs his disciples. With a steady-pace and a clear message, “How to Change the World” not only does justice to its title, but also shows why one man can’t change it on his own.
“How to Change the World” premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.