How To Change The World (Jerry Rothwell, 2015)


How To Change The World is a documentary film from director Jerry Rothwell that charts the history of the company Greenpeace, from its humble beginnings as a group of activists in 1971 to the internationally recognised brand it has become today.

The film concentrates on several key moments in the early history of Greenpeace: the attempts to prevent the detonation of nuclear bombs in Amchitka in 1971 (essentially the birth point of Greenpeace); the anti-whaling campaign of 1975 in which Russians fired harpoons over the heads of a boat of Greenpeace activists to kill a whale; and the organisation-dividing seal-dying campaign of 1982, which aimed to prevent the skinning of baby seals for their fur and led to a confrontation with Canadian hunters and a public standoff.

One of the cornerstones of the film is the evolving dynamics of the group. As the Greenpeace movement grows in stature the original members become celebrities and uncontrolled splinter groups popped up globally. Director Jerry Rothwell has clearly decided that the best way to hold the film together is to use Bob Hunter’s writings as the narrative. As he explains, “Greenpeace has a contested history because of what happened to them, this maelstrom of fame. I’ve tried to bring that out in the film. Bob Hunter’s writing had to be the central voice of the film. It is poetic. That needed to be the heart of the story.”

The film is presented stylishly with a great soundtrack of artists that have supported the cause over the years. Indeed, a 1970 Joni Mitchell and James Taylor concert funded the first whaling trip, but that is footage that doesn’t feature here. Instead, she features only over the end credits as Big Yellow Taxi aptly brings the film to a close. “There was a recording of that concert”, Hunter concedes, “but from a narrative point of view we needed to get them out to sea as soon as possible.”

It is a film that almost never existed, because the footage was unknown and ready to be destroyed. It was only when Rothwell had a chance encounter with the footage that he realised there was a film to be made out of it: “I realised there was 1000 canisters of film in Amsterdam. I happened to be in that archive for another project. There were some extraordinary images. For Greenpeace at the time the function of the films was to make campaign films for seals and whales. The cut offs were in a way what I was interested in, as it showed a glimpse of the dilemmas they had faced.”

As documentaries go, the content of the film is fascinating. It doesn’t force the current agendas down the viewers’ throats (there is plenty of information on their website should you care to take a look), instead taking the stance that the history of the organisation is a story interesting enough in itself. The way it is presented is also extremely polished and easy to digest. I’d be surprised if it isn’t at least being mentioned when the awards season kicks off in earnest next year.

How To Change The a World will be released at cinemas worldwide on 11th September 2015.

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