In March I spoke with Emily James, an award-winning documentary maker from the UK who has been making films with a conscience for several years. She had just returned from the San Francisco Green Film festival where she had been promoting her new feature-length documentary Just Do It. This ‘tale of modern-day outlaws’ takes us into the world of the UK’s climate change direct activists. Here she tells us about the film, and the difference that documentary can make.
Enjoy – and don’t forget to let us know what you think in the comments section below.
Mads Ryle – Democracy Center staff
If you know of a campaigning creative we should talk to, get them to write to us at email@example.com.
by Mads Ryle
Borrowing and subverting one of the most famous brand no-logos of our time is an appropriate move for Just Do It, a documentary that features people dedicating themselves to overturning the status quo. Along with its clever use of animation and the ironic outlook of several of its main personalities, this gives a necessary playfulness to a tale of people who are essentially struggling for our collective survival. It reflects the sense of humour that has been gainfully employed by the UK climate movement to garner support and attention, as well as making the film incredibly watchable and engaging.
Just Do It is the result of a year (2009-10) spent filming with people in the UK – most of them young – who carry out direct action on climate change, often by targeting those most responsible for causing it. The film follows this community as it attempts to shut down a power station, locks itself onto bank headquarters, lobs food to striking workers at a wind turbine factory, or takes part in various actions (and gets put in police cells) at the UN COP-15 in Copenhagen. Getting such prolonged access to a community of people who are by necessity secretive is no easy proposition, but director Emily James was able to point to a roster of previous projects that included films such as The Luckiest Nut in the World – an animated analysis of the injustice inherent in so-called ‘free market’ globalization economics – as well as production work on the climate feature film The Age of Stupid. Making Just Do It as an independent, partly crowd-funded project also made a big difference. “That was a real turning point,” says James, “because [the activists being filmed] were like ‘Oh. You’re not even getting paid to do this. Not only that but you’re taking risks yourself’. It just became clear that I was doing it for the same reason that they were doing it. And I wasn’t an outsider in as much as I understood the politics, and not only that but I shared the politics.”
James was invited to film the shut-down of Stansted airport in east London by the direct action group Plane Stupid in August 2008. The footage she took on that day was all over the news for 24 hours – and then the story disappeared. It was this experience that motivated her to make something more long-lasting: “I was so impressed by what the people that I met were doing. And I was also very aware that their story wasn’t being documented in any kind of comprehensive way. So [after Stansted] I went back to them and said ‘look if we filmed the planning around an action like this then I could make a much longer film and that would have a longer shelf-life and reach a wider audience’.” The film opens with a critical glance at how climate activism is reported in the mainstream British press – a characterization that generally ranges from the doings of pathetic hippies to violent extremists – and this was something that the film sought to challenge. As James says, “When I did the action with them the thing that struck me was how these guys were nothing like you would assume that they were if all you did was watch the news. There’s something much richer and much deeper to what they’re doing. So I wanted to amplify their message and paint a portrait of them that I thought was more accurate than the one they were getting.”
James sees documentary as a medium uniquely suited to telling these kinds of stories, and getting meaningful responses from those who see them. “There’s a special thing about documentaries”, she tells me, “because they’re able to move you emotionally and intellectually at the same time. So you can have informational content and learn about the world – in the case of an observational film like Just Do It you have a window into a world you might not yourself be able to ever see first-hand. And in doing so you have a growing empathy with the people that you get to know there and so that changes your perspective on what they’re doing.”
James rejects the idea that she’s trying to ‘radicalize’ people with this film – because she rejects such a framing of what is or isn’t ‘radical’. “I do think the film is trying to reposition culturally the things that are happening in the film,” she says. “We’ve kind of bought into this idea that these people are ‘radicals’ and that they’re extremists… I don’t want it to push people to the margins of our political debate. I want to pull those people who have been pushed to the margins back into the centre of the debate.”
At any rate there’s no doubt that seeing the people in Just Do It following their ethical instincts and taking the risks that they do has a very strong effect on the viewer. “They’re heroes,” James asserts, “and the funny thing is that I didn’t have to over-egg that to make that the case. I just had to show them as they are and do a relatively straight-forward portrait and it’s incredibly inspiring and makes you want to go and join them.”
James has made a number of television commissions which automatically received audiences in the millions – including people who haven’t necessarily “come to you”. With an independent production like this things are somewhat different, and finding and reaching an audience necessarily depends on exploiting the networks of those close to the issue. But James doesn’t see this as a problem. “Even if someone is a left-leaning liberal who already believes that climate change is happening and something needs to be done about it, this isn’t not the film for them – this is exactly the audience.” She looked for “that sweet spot in between” an already committed activist audience, and people who still need convincing about whether climate change is even real. “It is a film for people– and I think this is a very large group – who understand that climate change is happening, who have probably already done most of what they can easily do to change their own behavior. And who most likely have got to the point of feeling quite un-empowered and depressed about the scale of the problem and what we can do about it.
“A lot of people’s response is to put their head in the sand and just try and get on with their lives. And the thing that really inspired me about the people in Plane Stupid, Climate Camp and Climate Rush was that they didn’t do that. Their response was to go out and get really engaged and do something really bold and dramatic in order to try and create a real shift in the situation. And to do that against all odds, whether or not it was going to work. And I think that’s really important – to do things because they’re the right thing to do, not just because you’re going to get the desired effect at the end.”
In terms of getting results, Just Do It finishes by highlighting a number of campaign successes achieved over the period – including the halting of a third runway at Heathrow Airport. But in the film when James asks Marina and Rowan – two of the featured activists – whether what they do is ‘doing any good’, it is their attitude that she feels to be just as important as these tangible wins: “At that point in the filming none of those successes had happened, and they were doing these things anyway. And the answers that they gave, that’s what I was looking for – essentially a statement of: if you do nothing, then you’re definitely not gonna win. So you have to try.” Seeing the tenacity of the activists she worked with was inspiring: “Being unwilling to give up the fight…The people in the film, it was almost like they knew they were fighting an unwinnable battle. They were OK with that on some level. They would rather go down fighting than be the people that just stood by and watched it happen. And those are incredibly important core values…that I think as a society we’ve lost sight of to a really harmful extent.”
When I ask James what she saw as being strategically effective during her time with the movement, she tells me that she’s “not a direct action purist”. In other words, she does think it’s “totally valid to do stuff in order to get media attention or political attention.” And from that point of view, “what you do is important if it’s bold and arresting, but I think the tone with which you do it is almost more important. So I really like the Climate Rush stuff because it’s always very playful. And I like that Marina [another central character in the film] always stays polite and always keeps her tongue in her cheek a bit. And I think that makes it much more palatable for people to come to. It’s important for the individuals involved as well to get a sense of community and have a sense of play and a sense of fun about what they’re doing.”
That sense of community is one of the overriding impressions that Just Do It leaves the viewer with, one of the key ingredients in making you want to get out your seat and head down to join the squatters and local residents in their community garden at Grow Heathrow. As James says, “We can’t underestimate the personal and psychological value of participating in these kinds of things. Once you see what’s going on, sitting back and doing nothing is more psychologically damaging than going out and working with other people. There’s something so rewarding about being surrounded by people who share your values and who are engaged in a common effort to try and do something to make the world a better place.”
Visit http://justdoitfilm.com/ to find out more, watch the trailer, read the accompanying blog and newspaper, or get involved with helping to organize a screening where you live.