Review: A Greenpeace biopic of movements and mindbombs

How to Change the World, a documentary by Jerry Rothwell, is a tender portrait of the activism giant and egos that shaped it

The film out September 11

Film poster

By Alex Pashley

How To Change The World is the untold tale of how a motley crew of 70s hippies sparked a global phenomenon.

The original activists, the documentary unfolds from a volunteer navy that sails into a nuclear test zone, capturing the public imagination, to the growing pains of a burgeoning movement.

The idea was to create “mindbombs” – the equivalent of today’s viral stories – to spur people into action.

Russian whalers mercilessly harpooning in the north Pacific wasn’t news. But a band of hirsute hipsters armed with cameras on the high seas bearing witness to the bloodletting was.

Campaigns to stop whaling (one such financed by a Joni Mitchell concert) and the clubbing of baby seals for their white fur won the media scrutiny to effect change.

“We were part of a reflex summoned to action,” recounts one member, as rich archive footage is mixed with retrospective interviews.

But celebrity brought challenges. As ego and power swelled, so the group became divided. Founding members departed.

While the Vancouver-based group inspired others to start chapters at home and abroad, it was riven with internal troubles as competing visions clashed.

Layering the reams of unreleased footage left in its Amsterdam HQ with the Gonzo-style writings of reporter-turned-ringleader Bob Hunter, director Jerry Rothwell and producer Al Morrow have achieved a nuanced result.

“This isn’t a campaigning film, but a film about campaigning,” the director assured viewers at the premiere’s Q&A session in a packed arthouse cinema in London on Wednesday.

An uplifting 110 minutes, the film strays into making Hunter, who died in 2005, a mythical figure on occasion.

Rothwell also deftly handles Greenpeace defector Patrick Moore. Having left the organisation in the 1980s, Moore still trades on his experience, branding himself the “sensible environmentalist”.

Greenpeace has firmly disowned Moore, who has become known for denying humankind’s influence on the climate.

But in the film, he gives honest accounts of the group’s salad days before he is unmasked as a “PR specialist, selling his Greenpeace affiliations to corporate buyers”.

With Greenpeace a driving force behind environmental protection measures, from a bans on international whaling to Brazilian exports of hard woods, recognition is deserved.

Yet the group has made enemies and clashed with the law over its controversial methods.

In one shocking incident 30 years ago, the French government bombed the famous activist ship Rainbow Warrior, to halt its protests against nuclear testing in the Pacific.

This week, a former French spy apologised for his part in the operation, which killed a crew member.

After the show, a panel of designer and donor Vivienne Westwood, Hunter’s daughter Emily and a Greenpeace director discussed the legacy of those early activists.

How could the movement make the leap from saving whales to the all-encompassing challenge of tackling global warming?

Westwood struck a dramatic tone among mentions of Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky, and James Lovelace of plummeting populations and planetary disaster. “It’s our last chance or we’re finished.”

It’s Emily Hunter, a Greenpeace activist following in her father’s footsteps, that sought to move past the polarised rhetoric around climate change.

“We’re unfortunately kind of limited by our nature, and as much as we have these great ideas and great campaigns and we maybe we get ships or marches, there are still those human dynamics,” she said.

“How we’re going to get out of this rut is how we work together. We need to get past this divisionary politics, that’s how we’re going to build movements.”

She may have been preaching to the converted – no eco-dissenters made the journey to Soho’s Picturehouse Central  – but with a key climate summit three months away and countries well off slowing warming, it was timely.

How To Change The World is in cinemas from September 11

Read more on: Blog