How to Change the World – the story of Greenpeace - begins in 1971, Vancouver, a town described as having: ‘The biggest concentration of tree-huggers, radicalised students, garbage-dump stoppers, shit-disturbing unionists, freeway fighters, pot smokers and growers, aging Trotskyites, condo killers, farmland savers, fish preservationists, animal rights activists, back-to-the-landers, vegetarians, nudists, Buddhists, and anti-spraying, anti-pollution marchers and picketers in the country, per capita, in the world.’
And from this maelstrom of talent and passion emerges Rob Hunter, a student of Marshall McLuhan, bent on changing the world with what he termed ‘Media mind bombs’ - consciousness-changing sounds and images to blast around the world in the guise of news. Meeting with some likeminded people in a church basement who wanted to stop a US nuclear weapons test off Amchitka Island, Alaska, he set up the ‘Don't Make a Wave Committee’.
He and eleven other hippie activists sailed out to challenge the greatest military force on earth in a rusting fishing boat they called ‘The Greenpeace,’ setting off a wave of public support and protest which closed the US-Canadian border for the first time since 1812, ultimately shut the testing programme down, and created a new force for environmental and peace activism which continues to this day.
As I watched these major events of the 70s unfold, the daring photography in high seas as Greenpeace Warriors attempted to stop the Americans setting off nuclear bombs, audaciously confronting US military might in little Zodiacs, their cameramen stood four square shooting 16mm film dashed in spray and tossed by heaving bow waves, their courage was never in doubt, nor their commitment.
This, and the well-publicised ecological activism which still continues worldwide very successfully today is well known but what fascinated me most, and is a huge part of this film, was the human backstory: the personality clashes, the forming and storming, struggles for power, all showing graphically and painfully what happens when dynamic, charismatic and pioneering individuals get together to change the world.
The documentary very much reminded me of William Golding's Lord of Flies, where group members bound by their initial common purpose and passion relapse into vicious feuding. By 1977, the Canadian Greenpeace office was heavily in debt. Disputes between regions over fund-raising and organisational direction split the global movement as the North American offices were reluctant to be under the authority of the Vancouver office and its president.
There are also echoes of Orwell's Animal Farm seven commandments in Greenpeace’s efforts to lay down their five rules of engagement, one of which, number three, is ironically: ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Organised.’ It was sobering to see Greenpeace achieve so much but still to be falling out - ’to be getting at each other’s throats,’ as one of the founder members explains.
The 16mm photography is as you would expect, now that our modern eyes are used to enhanced digital clarity, but this does not distract from the brutal visual impact. When you see bright red blood streaming out of the bilges of the whaling ships the size of blocks of flats from the perspective of a bobbing Zodiac, the sea glittering ruby red, the black bulging eyes of dead seals appealing to you from blobs of bloodied fur, the warrior stance of two Greenpeace activists stood in pack ice blocking by their sheer presence the cutting edge of a seal culling ship, then you forget the cloudy images, the speckled screen.
How to Change the World premiered at the Sundance film festival this spring, where it won the Special Jury Award for editing and the Candescent Award for Best Social Change documentary. The film earned top ten audience favourite honours at Hot Docs 2015 and best feature honours at both the Sebastopol and Eco Film festivals.
How to Change the World is now showing at FACT.