Jerry Rothwell’s inspirational and entertaining documentary How To Change The World explores the birth of Greenpeace and the tumultuous sea-change it sparked in environmentalism.
When You Were Youngby Dave O'Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
‘Let go of power before it freezes in your hands’ was the advice given to co-founder Robert (Bob) Hunter by Allen Ginsberg in the midst of the ecological revolution prompted by Greenpeace in the 1970s. Director Jerry Rothwell’s documentary deals with the genesis of Greenpeace from a beat-up old fishing boat out of Vancouver in 1971 and, more intriguingly, on the instant celebrity the ragtag band of brothers behind it achieved. From an unprecedented wealth of 16mm archival footage together with retrospective interviews from the key players as well as a wonderful use of animation and score, this is a consummately crafted documentary. Understanding that the real intrigue of revolution is the people power and politics in the engine room, his film is a warts-and-all, nuts-and-bolts homage to the mystics and mechanics of environmentalism in the 1970s.
The Phyllis Cormack set sail from Vancouver in 1971 on a mission to stop the Nixon administration’s planned atomic bomb tests in Amchitka, Alaska. On board, a colourful mecca of ecologists, fishermen, draft-dodgers and journalists, with a desire to effect change in saving the whales, seals and Mother Earth entire. Charting the success of the activists’ intentions to impress the importance of environmentalism – or ‘mind bomb’ – into the public consciousness, the film celebrates a highly perceptive leader in Bob Hunter. Highlighting the hits and near misses of Greenpeace in its early days as well as its international explosion, Rothwell’s documentary focuses on the work and the people behind one of the biggest movements of the ‘Me Decade’ and beyond.
Outside of the enthralling footage of activists chasing Russian whalers and picketing Norwegian seal-hunting ships, the human dynamic is the crux of Jerry Rothwell’s excellent film. Deconstructing the slow and gradual decay of the relationships that Greenpeace was built upon provides an interesting counter-balance to the inspirational and momentous work highlighted throughout the documentary. Based on the writings of Bob Hunter from diary entries and articles etc. Barry Pepper narrates for the late co-founder which effectively makes his presence felt in an important way. Hunter is the beating heart of Rothwell’s film and his influence is palpable not only from the narration, but from both the footage and dialogue of his friends and former colleagues. Humorously illustrating that this influence wasn’t always inspired, there are plenty of light-hearted moments that prove Hunter was simply doing the best he could.
In terms of structure, the film strikes a superb balance between the blissful halcyon days of the organisation’s formation and the squabbles that prevailed over the founders at the height of Greenpeace’s success. Visually, Rothwell employs the use of hand-drawn animation in several sequences to highlight the trippy, psychedelic backdrop that these seafaring “gang of ecological bikers” enjoyed. In addition, Lesley Barber’s score is by far and away one of the finest documentary scores in recent memory. Not since Philip Glass’ The Thin Blue Line score has a score been so complementary to the film that it accompanies. An experienced filmmaker, Rothwell’s mastery of the documentary film makes How To Change The World an absolute pleasure to watch.
Highlighting the genius of Bob Hunter’s unique and unrivaled perception of what we now know as viral campaigning, How To Change The World is a fascinating documentary on so many levels. Much of the footage – which is over 40 years old – is in pristine condition and the blissful ignorance of youth simply leaps off the screen. Rothwell highlights the main players’ weaknesses and the power that ultimately complicated the simplicity of their purpose. The only minute criticism one would have is that there’s even more story to tell in terms of the fallout between Patrick Moore and Paul Watson in particular. How To Change The World ends on an emotional and overwhelmingly inspirational note – fitting for a film that celebrates a man and a movement that had a unique understanding of the power of the media and the ‘mind bomb’.
How To Change The World is released on 11th September in the UK & Ireland