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Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein on How ‘This Changes Everything’ is ‘Not a Slit-Your-Wrists Film’

Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein on How 'This Changes Everything' is 'Not a Slit-Your-Wrists Film'

“I’ve always kind of hated films about climate change.” That’s how Naomi Klein kicks off her husband’s climate change documentary. But don’t get her wrong — Klein, an esteemed writer on the subject, is no denier. She and partner Avi Klein are simply sick and tired of the status quo.

With “This Changes Everything,” a documentary by Lewis and a book by Klein, the duo has reshaped the narrative of climate change. They’ve dispensed with the alarmist rhetoric surrounding the debate; instead, they focus on a story of resilience, community and change. The result is galvanizing. Unlike other climate documentaries, Lewis’ manages to avoid leaving the audience to feel helpless in the face of inevitable destruction. It chronicles the front lines of climate change social justice, bringing us into a movement bolstered by thousands of people around the world and affecting serious change. 

Indiewire spoke to Lewis and Klein about their unique process of inter-medium collaboration and what the average person can do to help save the world.

I was most struck by the fact that your film seems to embrace a shift in the narrative in climate change, one that focuses on agency rather than crisis. Is this how you set out to make the movie?

Avi Lewis: Could you have a quick word with other journalists so we can start all interviews from this point? It would be so handy. Yes! That’s exactly it. That’s precisely what we were trying to do. And in this way I think we’re very much led by our subject. This is what we found as we went around the world. We looked around and found places where people were connecting the dots and really living on the front lines of both fossil fuel extraction and the climate crisis. There’s a tremendous amount of energy and organizing going on in those communities.

Yes, people are scared, and some of these stories have really sad endings, but there are also a lot of victories. People are engaged, facing the facts and fighting back in really constructive ways. They’re not defeated. This is not a sad story. It’s not a slit-your-wrists climate film. It’s a story about people who are making change happen in real time.

How did you come across the subjects initially?
AL: Naomi and I embarked on this project simultaneously. We did it as a parallel process. I had the kernel of Naomi’s idea, the basic thesis for the book, that the climate crisis might be the best chance we’re ever going to get to build a better world. So it was a question of looking around the world and doing the deep research and the endless interviewing and meeting people and calling and Skyping to try to find places where that idea was playing out in people’s real lives. It’s the toughest part of the documentary process when everything is possible. We were looking for and developing these stories for three years.

Did you write the book and film the documentary in tandem?
Naomi Klein: It was tricky, and in many ways it would’ve been easier if I had finished the book and then handed it over to Avi to make a film about it. But we came up with this model for a couple of reasons. One is that it takes a long time to make a film. The other part of it is I’ve had the experience of making a film based on a book — my last book, “The Shock Doctrine,” was turned into a film after the fact by Michael Winterbottom. It struck me that there was this inherent flaw with the process: I’m really changed by my research. This book is very different from what I set out to write.

And so we wanted to make a film that was along for that journey. Avi was with me on early research trips back in 2010. Later, the Heartland Conference was a real “click” moment in developing the thesis of the book, like, “Wait a minute, maybe the right understands something about climate change that the left doesn’t get.” So I think there were big advantages of doing it together because you’re able to document and capture that genuine process of discovery rather than recreate it after the fact. It was a longer process and probably a lot harder for Avi, but I’m very pleased with how it turned out. 

READ MORE: Climate Change Doc ‘This Changes Everything’ Gets Global Release Via iTunes

AL: It was harder for me, but you had to live with me while I was doing it [laughs]. I can say with confidence that the pain was shared. A lot of the stuff I was going on was stuff that Naomi had discovered in the process of researching the book. Like, she met Mike and Alexis for the first time. Naomi was actually going to a conference on geoengineering in Missoula, Montana and while she was there, there was a real fossil fuel frenzy going on in the Powder River Basin, all these different projects. And she wanted to meet some activists who were trying to deal with what was happening in that part of the world with energy development. So she met Mike and Emily for the first time on an only vaguely related research trip, and after she met them she was like, “You’ve got to meet these people. What they’re confronting is mind-boggling, and I have a feeling something is going to happen with them.”

Now, we had no idea there would be a horrific oil spill right on their farm, next to the Yellowstone River, that happened two days after we had spent the week shooting with them and meeting them on their farm and learning about the work that they do. But definitely the book and the film fed into each other in ways that were compounding and very exciting.

Did you find that the subjects had a general ethos of galvanizing power? That they didn’t feel defeated by the circumstances they were encountering?

AL: I think it’s remarkable how much power and resilience there is in these community organizations. The atmosphere is not always fun when you’re taking on a big company that has the backing of all the local politicians and when you’re seeing the most precious thing you have, the land and water you rely on, being contaminated. But that being said, there’s a real spirit in these struggles. There’s a real sense of connectedness, it continues to resonate for me that in the struggle against the gold mine in Greece.

One of the characters said that before the gold mine came to threaten their land, all they cared about was having the biggest plasma screen. Now they don’t even watch TV, and what they like to do at night is go to the village square and meet their friends and family in the struggle and eat together and go over the latest developments. It’s really striking that people who do take that step into agency are finding that there are greater joys in a life of commitment, in a life where they’re no longer looking away but actually working together.

NK: In a lot of cases we’re talking about, people are engaging because they don’t have a choice. They see it as fighting for the health of their kids, fighting for their water, and fighting — in the case of indigenous people in the Tar Sands region — for their rights guaranteed under treaties to be able to live traditionally. If you have a culture based on hunting and fishing and all the animals are disappearing and the fish are sick, then you can’t live traditionally. Then your treaty is being violated. Obviously there are degrees of choice in terms of that decision to fight.

I think that kind of urgency is what makes this stage of the climate movement really different from what it was even a few years ago when it was much more of the professionalized NGOs lobbying behind closed doors and maybe having a march now and then. Now because you have the rise of the anti-fracking movement, the Keystone XL moment, so many people are on the front lines of this fossil fuel frenzy, it is infused much more with a sense of urgency.

What do you think it will take for people outside of the sacrifice areas, people who aren’t affected by this crisis in their everyday lives, to get into the front lines?

AL: If we had the answer we wouldn’t need to make books and movies to try to encourage people. That’s the big one!

NK: The film ends with images of the People’s Climate March in New York City a year ago, and that was the largest climate march in history. I don’t think it’s a coincidence it took place in post-Hurricane Sandy New York City where a lot of people who thought this was an issue that affected other people found out that it affected them too very suddenly. I personally feel very strongly that what it will take is not more disasters, it’s that what it will take is a vision of the future that is better than our present.

That’s why we highlight Germany’s energy transition and the fact that they’ve created hundreds of thousands of good jobs, the fact that it has democratized energy and brought resources back to communities so they can use those resources to pay for services, laying out how responding to climate change can build a fair economy and can solve urgent economic problems right now, because we’re not just dealing with a crisis of climate change. We’re dealing with a crisis of inequality, of joblessness, of underemployment. 

AL: It’s also such a stark reminder being here in New York City just as the threat of Hurricane Joaquin looms. Everybody here is traumatized. There are more and more of us in the sacrifice zone together. The whole point of our work is to try to help people see that it’s most dramatic when you live next to an extraction project or next to a flood zone, but this is a crisis for humanity. 

NK: The entire west was ravaged by wildfires and still is, this past July was the hottest month ever recorded of any month in history, so I think people are losing that sense of security pretty fast, frankly.

AL: The biggest barrier is that we think things can’t change, and we’re constantly told that by our so-called realists, the gatekeepers of public opinion and of policy in the political realm. The people who are involved in the front line struggles know that they can change things. 

As a person with a job that doesn’t have a direct funnel into the climate change world, I want to say that I really care about this issue. Something I struggle with is that, short of changing my career to advocate for sustainability, I don’t know what else I can do. Besides recycling or trying not to drive, what would your advice be for somebody who feels that kind of helplessness gap?

AL: I’m so glad you asked. It’s a profound question. I want to warn you in advance that this might seem like a cop-out, but I really believe what I’m going to say next [laughs]. This is really such a personal question. Once you feel the desire to engage, you have to think about what you’re good at and what you can contribute. And that’s going to be different for everybody. So let’s say you’re a writer, and you know how to communicate. There are organizations on all kinds of different fronts who need help with writing and communicating and websites. 

It’s really about breaking down this idea that there’s activists and then there are ordinary people. If you spend a lot of time with activists, as I have in the last five years on this project, they’re just ordinary people who instead of Netflix are getting together in church basements and making posters or making phone calls doing organizing work. It really is about finding a community of other people. The thing that our system is designed to do is keep us alone and isolated in our little consumer bubble. And the most revolutionary act of all might be finding a community of like-minded people where you can talk about these issues and figure out what to do together. Because this is the definition of a collective problem, and we’re not going to have individual solutions that add up to a big systemic change; we’ve got to confront this together.

Find an organization, shoot them an email, call them up, find them on Facebook and say “Hey, I want to volunteer.” And that first step could lead to a whole life of engagement. It could be a pretty exciting ride.

“This Changes Everything” is currently streaming on iTunes. Watch the film here

READ MORE: Climate Change Doc ‘This Changes Everything’ Gets a Stylish Poster From Shepard Fairey

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