Not long after Naomi Klein began the research for her book, “This Changes Everything,” her husband Avi Lewis set about making a documentary based on the same subject. A broadcast veteran himself, Lewis has hosted a number of news shows, including Al Jazeera’s “Fault Lines” and the CBC’s “On the Map,” and also partnered with Klein to make the documentary “The Take.”
“This Changes Everything” brings the viewer to the front lines of the climate struggle: where communities are fighting the ongoing development of fossil fuels. Klein narrates, as the film examines how the fight is being played out around the world, from Canada’s tar stands to Beijing’s smog. The film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this month, and has many screenings scheduled around the world in the coming months (details here). We caught up with Lewis to talk about the filmmaking process.
TreeHugger: From the beginning, you set out with the premise that “This Changes Everything” is different from other climate change documentaries. Tell me about how you see it as different?
Avi Lewis: There have been a number of reviewers that have seized on the fact that we do something a little cheeky to distinguish ourselves from the climate film genre, with Naomi confessing that she’s always kind of hated climate films.
The first thing that makes our project different is that we’re really connecting the dots between the carbon in the air and the economics that put it there. That’s no surprise at all to readers of TreeHugger and other people in the movement, but it is for a general audience. This is about taking on the economic system that is at the heart of the climate crisis.
The other thing that distinguishes our film from many of the others, is that once you make the connection between the climate crisis and its root cause, the economic orthodoxy that rules our world, it actually opens the door to a much more hopeful prospect. It opens up this huge and inspiring potential for connecting movements across issues—for connecting the climate crisis to the crisis of economic inequality.
TH: What is the feeling you hope viewers will walk away from the film with?
AL: It’s a delicate business, because I think everybody comes to a film with different expectations and difference experiences, and people will leave with a feeling that very much relates to how they came in. Certainly as a filmmaker, you have an intention, you have a goal. Naomi and I both set the goal for this whole project as one that would instill an incredible sense of hope in the audience.
If we were just inspiration junkies, and we just wanted to do something that was hopeful, we would have done something that was just propaganda. You have to grapple with power, you have to grapple with the reasons why the solutions that we know so well are not being implemented. So, I think there could be a danger in presenting an overly optimistic view of the situation.
On the other hand, just relentlessly documenting the depth of the crisis is not a huge contribution. There are a lot of great science writers out there, who just write about the science, and I just want to slash my wrists when I read their stuff. I think we have a responsibility to point towards solutions and to balance the sense of despair which can be so paralyzing.
We don’t shy away from the depressing parts, which is how dire the situation is, especially for communities living on the front lines of fossil fuel extraction. But on the other hand, I think we’re really honest about the victories that are being won. There’s a feeling throughout the film, I hope, of that building sense of momentum, that culminates at the end in a very hopeful finish, which so far in the early screenings, people have told us have inspired them to take action.
TH: The film covers environmental movements in both China and India. Did you find it more challenging to find people on the front lines to talk about their fight against fossil fuels in those countries?
AL: In India, where you go to places where communities that are resisting, especially near coal-fired power plants that have had a big wave of resistance in the last five years, people are so excited to talk about their struggles. And they’re so incredibly welcoming to interest from outside.
In China, it’s very very difficult to reach those people who are actually on the front lines: people who are resisting and protesting in China. It’s not impossible, but it’s very hard to even get into China with official permission to film and the Chinese government is extremely wary of people documenting that kind of resistance, outsiders especially. So yes, in China it’s terrifically difficult.
They allow a lot of environmental protests, because the government in China understands that pollution and the impact of this rampant economic growth on the environment is the number one issue for Chinese people. The government is really trying to do something about it, because it fears that if it doesn’t, it could have a revolution on its hands. So, it’s very easy to talk to people on the streets of any Chinese city about pollution and the consequences of development. But you show up with a camera at a demonstration, and you are putting yourself and other people at risk.
TH: I think of the film as sort of a series of vignettes, and I was curious about how you went about choosing which ones to include in the film. Did you set out to highlight different issues or to show different places?
AL: This is where I should draw the veil over the whole filmmaking process, and let you leave this conversation thinking that I had some genius plan. The truth is, it was extremely difficult over the course of three or four years of shooting. Most documentaries come out with some sort of shape at the end, but you go in with much more vague notions.
But basically Naomi and I did the book and the film as parallel projects. She had a few months' head start, but she did the book research and I did the film research at the same time. So, I never had her book to work from until the last six months, and at that point the shooting was all already done. I had the kernel of her idea, the thesis of “This Changes Everything,” that the climate crisis might be the best chance that we’re ever going to get to actually build a better world.
I tried to find places in the world where the big huge abstract ideas were playing out in people’s real lives. That was the most difficult part of the process--trying to find ongoing community struggles. I knew I wanted to show people who were engaged. I knew I wanted to show that people who don’t necessarily consider themselves activists get engaged in struggles, and I felt that was critical for the wider audience.
My conviction is that seeing people in action, and connecting and identifying with them in their real lives, this is the way to make it connect for the people who aren’t currently politically engaged and make it seem like something worth doing.
TH: I’m curious about what ended up on the cutting room floor. Were there any communities or locations that wish you could have included?
AL: Oh my god, yeah. This is the part where I could start weeping, because making a documentary is a continuous process of letting go of things that you really really care about. Like many other creative endeavors, it’s a really demanding process to be strict about serving the idea that the work is trying to express, and ruthlessly letting go of stuff that you can’t make serve that overarching purpose.
I did two shoots in El Salvador, there’s an extraordinary movement in the lower level valley, which is in a way the most sophisticated movement that we filmed. These folks are making all the connections, and somehow I just didn’t manage to make their story click in this film. So, I’m making a half-hour film based exclusively on them, which I hope to get out in the new year. The material is really strong, it just didn’t find a place in “This Changes Everything.” I would prefer that not stay on the cutting room floor.
Three or four months ago, Naomi and I pressed “delete” on the narration that we had been writing and rewriting for two years and started from scratch. But there were lots of things about that old narration that actually worked really well, so we decided to preserve some of those short sections as deleted scenes that will be digital extras. Happily now in the digital world, much less has to go to “waste” because we can share those deleted bits elsewhere.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“This Changes Everything” will screen in New York City at the IFC Center from October 1 to October 8. The IFC Center will also host a special Q&A with Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis on the evening of October 2.