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TIFF 2015: Director Avi Lewis on Climate Change Doc, This Changes Everything

The third in what has been dubbed an “antiglobalization trilogy,” Naomi Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything, strips away the niceties of middle-brow climate change activism. As Klein argues, promoting the type of meaningful change that will lead to the survival of the planet involves more than film festival reusable sippy cups and something considerably different than the pro-market solutions of green business consortiums. Indeed, Klein’s book is subtitled “Capitalism vs. The Climate,” and it directly blames the growth mantra of governments and economic markets for our rising temperatures. Furthermore, it intertwines the fight against global warming with the fight against global inequality, arguing that we can’t defeat one without defeating the other. For those who recycle often and would like to do their bit while also watching their 401(k)s increase in value, Klein’s is a bracing message.

While the right’s opposition to Klein’s argument is predictable — it parallels their opposition to the climate change movement in general — the book has also been attacked , sometimes in the form of gentle patronization, by liberals for whom its ultimate recommendations are just too radical. And despite the clarity of its subtitle, the book has also received jibes from those on the Left who find its anti-capitalism not radically detailed enough.

In its dialogue with Klein’s work, director Avi Lewis’s TIFF-premiering documentary film, This Changes Everything, which is more a companion project than an adaptation, dispenses with the “Capitalism vs. the Climate” subtitle all together. It largely steps away from the charts and pie graphs of no-growth economic arguments to focus on the stories of a sympathetic collection of real people who become activists to fight climate change issues manifesting in their own backyards. These include Montana goat ranchers whose property is endangered by fossil fuel extraction; a Greek housewife who sees her country buffeted by the economic collapse as well as the arrival of a Canadian mining company; and a young indigenous woman battling government interests to explore the ongoing environment disaster in Canada’s tar sands. For those familiar with the breadth and implications of Klein’s argument, the concentration on these smaller individual stories is jarring at first. But, over the course of its running time, Lewis orchestrates these tales, which gain in scope, into a larger tapestry of human struggle that speaks to the need to take radical action.

A few days before the festival I spoke to Lewis about the development of his film, the challenge of Klein’s book as source material, and the ways in which the film’s message has become intertwined with its distribution strategy.

Filmmaker: So at what point in the writing and development of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate did you conceive of this film?

Lewis: This was a little bit unusual in that we conceived of this as multi-platform from the get go. There was about five or six years of research on the book. I was finishing a TV gig, doing a series in the AM, and then I went to New Orleans around the Deep Water Horizon disaster. But by then, in 2010, I was working full time on the film, and I had brought on Katie McKenna, a coproducer and collaborator, to focus on engagement — the online and movement component. The concept was to introduce a radical idea into the culture and have it hit people in as many different ways as possible.

Filmmaker: So, you were working alongside the writing of the book. Did you conceive of their aims as different?

Lewis: The book does something very different than the film. The whole project was conceived of as a sprawling behemoth from the beginning. And Naomi’s skills as a writer are almost antithetical to film adaptation. She persuades through the marshaling of vast and meticulous evidence. To convey even a page of that in filmic [terms] — at one point I did a word count on the script, and it was shorter than the acknowledgement sections of the book! You can’t just shrink down and represent the scope of her argument unless you want to make a talking head extravaganza.

So the book was being written the while time the film was being made. The film is my exploration of the terrain Naomi mapped out — the present tense struggles of the ideas Naomi was exploring. The book came out a year ago, and by the time I had the finished book it was of no use to the film. And yet, they are not as far apart as I am making them sound. The core idea is that we found the basis of climate change in the logic of the economic system. The relationship between carbon, air and the economic system that put it there. And that’s a liberating and exciting recognition. All the struggles against economic injustice are connected to the climate struggle, the great crisis of inequality. The solutions to those problems are the same as [the solutions] to the existential problems of climate change. That connection — when the light goes on in people’s heads, it galvanizes them.

Filmmaker: Was it a deliberate decision from the start to make the film more character-based than the book?

Lewis: This is very intentional.This is only my second film, but I have done a lot of docs for TV, but those aren’t film experiences. They didn’t take five years and make me into a miserable human being! From the beginning, I hoped to make a hybrid that would weave one strand of Naomi’s argument through more observational character studies. And it was shaped by what happened to The Shock Doctrine. When that book was done, Naomi had been touring the world for a year, and [people said], why wasn’t there a film? So we went looking for a filmmaker and found Michael Winterbottom. His film was an 87-minute voiceover with archival footage — his version of Naomi’s argument. There was no observational or verite component. We felt that that’s the kind of material that moves people, so here, in a way, the pendulum has tilted away from the “argument film” to a more personal and emotional journey.

A lot of it comes back to politics for us. That’s what drives us. We are all in a state of denial about climate change because it’s a scary subject. We can’t be anticipating a looming apocalypse all the time. That would be unbearable. So how do we look and incite people to engage? And when I saw that Naomi’s analysis helped explain the new world, and that people were answering the call who didn’t consider themselves activists, and I watched the process of people engaging, I thought I could make activism seen less activist-y. I could zoom in on the moment when someone decides to get us and act instead of just enduring.

Filmmaker: How does your own relationship with Naomi dovetail with the project? How do you work together — or not work together — on a project like this?

Lewis: We’ve been married for 20 years, and we had a kid together during the course of making this project. It was humbling realizing that bringing new life in the world was faster and easier than making a doc! I started as a local news reporter in 1990 in Toronto. I interviewed rock stars for five years, did political coverage on a music network and political talk shows on CBC. Naomi was the best TV producer I have worked with, but she never got credit; she was just my partner. And I’m always her first reader, but I am by no means an editor. Our work is a result of an ongoing collaboration.

Filmmaker: So you’ve advised and consulted each other on projects, but how about collaborating directly?

Lewis: We were a little bit conscious of this. The Take came out 11 years ago, and we had spent all of 2002 living in Argentina, following the new movement of workers taking over businesses and forming democratic cooperatives. We co-directed in the field, but Naomi never wrote a book about that. I worked with the editor and then we co-narrated. It was harder to reconcile our different voices and opinions — which are subtle, not fundamental — while working on the same piece. This time, it was, “You write the book, I’ll make the movie, and we’ll work on the same subject: the transformation of the world.”

Filmmaker: Can you discuss your decision to significantly condense the book’s economic argument in favor of a more character-based approach?

Lewis: This was another thing that took a long time to figure out, and it was doubly humbling. Naomi writes 500-page doorstops, and it took me a year longer than it took her. This film was really tricky to figure and work out. It took a long time before we got it where we wanted it. It was hard to let go of the density of argument in the book. At a certain point, in the last year, we ditched the entire narration we had been writing for two years. We deleted it and organized the stories into a structure of rising action. Naomi pushed herself to watch those stories without any narration, [and we looked at] which themes [were unfolding]. We settled into the relationship of man and nature, with geoengineering as the high point of human hubris. That single idea would unfold and get developed along with action that could come together in the end. The previous versions were all “here’s a thing, and then another thing, and then another thing.” I love those earlier versions. They were demanding, intellectually dense and exhausting. But we needed to strip it down and cut it loose from the book. We had been saying that, but we hadn’t really been doing it — drawing out one idea and exploring it. Amazingly, one month before there was the papal encyclical call for action on climate change, the Pope’s piece — it is an amazing document, just astonishing. It’s very odd for so many secular progressives to connect with an expression like that from the Vatican, but Catholicism has been the driver of the idea that God gave us the earth to do what we want with. No, God gave us nature to steward and work in concert with. That’s the core idea.

Filmmaker: I have to ask you about your executive producers, who span the gamut from well-known documentary producers like Jocelyn Barnes to primarily fiction directors like Alfonso Cuaron to even artists like Shepherd Fairey. How did these people get drawn into the project?

Lewis: All the famous people on the billing block came out of woodwork as fans of Naomi and the book. The only one not in that category was Cuaron, who we both worked with seven or eight years ago when we collaborated on a short animated film to go along with The Shock Doctrine. We stayed friends and in touch, and then, after we didn’t hear from him for a few years, he invited us to see Gravity in Toronto at TIFF. He was an active part of the creative team, and we had long Skype sessions that were more like therapy than notes. He’s an incredibly generous creative spirit. Shepard Fairy got excited by Naomie’s book; he got in touch and did the poster. And Seth McFarlane is a Twitter friend of Naomi’s. The executive producers are an odd pantheon who contributed in unique ways. It was amazing to get access to some of those minds and talent.

Filmmaker: How will the film’s distribution dovetail with its activist goals?

Lewis: There’s been a fracturing of the distribution landscape, and we are finding a unique path with this film. We are using an elaborate hybrid model where, first of all, we are getting the film out fast. The global climate talks are in Paris at the end of year, They are the most significant climate negotiations since Copenhagen in 2009. The climate movement is surging right now. As activists lead up to Paris, we want the film to be useful as a tool. The world premiere is at TIFF on the 13th, and less than two weeks later there will be special event screenings in Europe. There will be a solar panel-powered screening at the Syntagma Square in Athens. We are using Tugg. By the time of the premiere we will be up on their website. And we are using Abramorama [for distribution in the U.S.]. In Canada we are doing a traditional distribution deal, releasing in early October, and we are partnering with different movement and social justice groups. We are doing digital day and date on iTunes in order to make the film available to as many people as possible because this is a unique organizing moment. We already have 500 unsolicited requests from community groups around the world who want screenings. We are figuring out how to allow these screenings after the first couple of months. By November, we hope to have different tools so activists can book their own screenings with a DIY approach. We believe there is significant revenue potential to get our investors paid back through these more direct and dispersed distribution models. There are so many more tools than there were a few years to reach an audience that’s already motivated. When our trailer went up, inside of five days it was translated into 26 languages by 150 fans around the world using Amara, the crowd-sourcing translation tool. People are taking ownership of the film, and we are trying to make it easier for them to take matters into their own hands. If we had gotten a gold-star deal from a major distributor, they would have put our film on the shelf for nine months. But what we’re doing is part of the story of the film. It’s about movement, and it’s driven by movement, so we are doing a traditional release parallel with feeding a growing audience of activists.

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