This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein’s 2014 bestseller—looking hopefully, if not quite optimistically, at late-capitalism’s disastrous effects on environmental efforts, as well as the rise of grassroots responses in the wake of lacking governmental ones—was never envisioned as just a book. It stands alone, of course, but it was conceived in concert with Avi Lewis’s film of the same name. One didn’t precede the other; they were created in tandem to explore the same ideas using two different mediums.
Of course, making two substantially different forms of art about the same thing, at the same time, wasn’t easy.
“For the first three or more years, I was making a film about a book that didn’t exist yet,” Lewis says, of the early, parallel-groundwork days. “The film really is my exploration of the core idea that is behind her book. But not any attempt to make the book into a movie.”
Lewis took a call with Vue a few weeks before the film’s Edmonton première at the Edmonton International Film Festival—which is screening 150-some films over the next 10 days. Both Lewis and Klein will both attend the screening.
VUE WEEKLY: The film starts with Naomi saying she’s never liked films about climate change …
AVI LEWIS: In fact, it starts with her saying she kind of hates them. [laugh]
VW: Do you share that sentiment?
AL: The beginning of the film was something that we probably worked on more than anything else. We really wanted to start the movie where we feel that people are at: we know that this big, scary, terrifying thing is happening, but we can’t totally bear to look at it. And part of that is because the main approach to climate change from big green groups over the last couple of decades is to try to scare the shit out of people, on the premise that that will get them to act. And we’ve seen really clearly, that is a failed strategy.
Another one that we sort of take on in the film: in too many ways, it’s been made about those cuddly polar bears—”We have to save the polar bears.” You talk to anyone who works in a primary school, kids care about animals, and there’s nothing wrong with putting an animal face on a problem—nothing inherently wrong with that—but it’s really, for us, missed the mark. First of all, we don’t believe you can scare people into change. You have to inspire people to change. That is the premise behind our approach. And second of all, it isn’t just about saving polar bears. It’s about us: who we are as human beings. Whether we really believe what late-stage capitalism tells us—that we’re greedy, short-sighted, selfish consumers, or whether we can locate that other part of human nature, where we see ourselves as interconnected beings who operate on principles of cooperation and compassion. And of course, those two things reside in every human heart. And the trick of getting out of this treadmill—of endless consumption and depleting natural resources and ruining the planet and acidifying the oceans, and everything else that our global economy has proven so expert at doing—at the most basic human level, is [to] locate that most basic part of ourselves that sees these things as interconnected, including our faith as humans and inhabitants of this planet. And to work from that place, and not from the lowest common denominator as consumers.
VW: What was it like to be researching this as you were making the film in concert with this book?
AL: It was an endlessly shifting, dynamic process, where some of it was following Naomi on her research. One of the very earliest development shoots was going to this wacky conference of geo-engineers in this Downton Abbey-like location in southern England, to sit around and watch a bunch of scientists talk about turning down the sun by spraying sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere. Naomi’s position—as someone looking at this surreal gathering, and looking at the historical roots of this hubris—was something that was playing out in realtime. As well, the climate denier’s conference, the Heartland Institute conference, that we went to a couple of years later [where] Naomi looks on with sort of stunned disbelief [at] how well the climate deniers, who are actually free-market ideologues, understand the stakes of climate action. That happened in real time; chasing around after Naomi in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and watching the extraordinary grassroots response from groups like Occupy Sandy, and seeing the complete absence of government response, which was eerily reminiscent of [hurricane] Katrina 10 years before—those things were following Naomi as she did her research.
But this is not a film about Naomi. Naomi is not the star of the film. The stars of the film are people in community struggles around the world. And Naomi tries to provide a kind of thread, a clothesline that the different pieces of the story hang on. And there were a bunch of trips I did where Naomi didn’t come. In part because she had a book to finish, and in part because in the middle of this process we had a kid, and it didn’t make a lot of sense to bring our two-year-old to Bejing in the middle of the smog crisis, or when he was one and I went to India, where it was in March in southern Andhra Pradesh, India, where it was like 48 degrees in the day.
There were parts of the film research and shooting that fed back into the book: I would come home, Naomi would read the transcripts, she’d quote some of the people I interviewed in the book. At its best, the book and film fed into each other. The hardest part [was] we had to get disciplined about execution at a certain point: the film is the film and the book is the book. Books make arguments well and marshall evidence well, and films that try to make arguments with a lot of documentation … that was not the kind of film I wanted to make. I wanted to make a film that I think embodies the great promise of documentary, which is to bring you into people’s lives, and allow you to experience up close in real time, dramatic and emotional moments in the human condition. And figuring out how the ideas in the book would serve that, for one, was something that admittedly took a long time.
VW: As a filmmaker—someone who tells stories for a living—did examining this global narrative about the resource economy and its effects make you reflect on the kinds of stories you tell, and that get told in greater culture?
AL: Yeah, for sure. Anyone who works in media is, at essence, a storyteller. And when you start thinking about—and this can get a little meta, so let’s be careful not to disappear into our own craft too much—but when you start thinking about this 400-year-old narrative of human dominance of nature, you start seeing how it’s reflected and refracted in all kinds of ways, and is still reinforced in our culture, still the ruling narrative of our time: the notion that we can have endless economic growth, without limit and without discrimination, growth of any kind, on a finite planet with finite resources.
Just ask anyone: can you have infinite growth on a finite planet? No, obviously. And yet it’s the very premise of the global economy. And so you start to realize the power of these narratives: the narratives of endless frontiers, of infinite natural abundance from which we can extract infinitely. And you start realizing how many different ways they’re reflected in our culture, it does make you pause.
I think that [awareness is] really helpful. I think storytellers have a responsibility to challenge those underlying and overarching stories that rule our sense of the possible, that rule our sense of what we can be. But it’s hard work to tell new stories, or in many cases, to uncover ancient stories and give them current relevance. And I think that media makers of all kinds have a responsibility to work on our field, which is narrative, and to recognize the power of these unexamined narratives, and really grapple with how we can shift them.
Looking at positive examples, and telling those stories, and celebrating them—and more fundamentally, trying to learn from successes, and from places where things are changing for the better, and trying to understand how that process is working and how we can replicate it. It seems an approach that’s really worth trying, and I think a lot of filmmakers and storytellers are coming to this conclusion around the same time.