Protesters against gold mine in Halkidiki, Greece. Still from "This Changes Everything." Courtesy of Avi Lewis.
Protesters against gold mine in Halkidiki, Greece. Still from "This Changes Everything." Courtesy of Avi Lewis.

Culture | Portraits of climate action

This Changes Everything proves inspiring, despite flaws

“[Environmental] sustainability is a Marxist concept,” hollers one of the delegates participating in the right-wing Heartland Institute conference in the opening scene of This Changes Everything, directed by Avi Lewis. The documentary is an adaption of Naomi Klein’s homonymous novel, which highlights how neoliberal climate change deniers have hindered legislation that would create a just transition into an economy based on renewable energy.

A few chuckles resonated in the crowd on June 21 at Place de la Paix, where Cinema Politica hosted an audience of students, activists, and locals in the Downtown Screenings Under the Stars series, which featured Lewis’s documentary. It drew a sizeable crowd as Klein’s book has reverberated amongst environmental justice groups, inspiring initiatives like the Leap Manifesto as adopted by the NDP, the international COP21 agreement, as well as the sit-in and diploma returning ceremony organized by Divest McGill.

The audience peers into the climate activists’ worldviews […] without losing the main point of the documentary, a universal call to action.

As a populist climate action documentary, This Changes Everything neither calls for a political revolution nor a partisan solution, but rather a collective effort to rewrite the narrative that the Earth is an exploitable machine. Lewis and Klein expose extractive industries pillaging the Earth’s resources, and address a potential solution through the question: “what if the problem is a story, not people?”, calling for a revision of the dominant narrative that casts the planet as exclusively profitable.

The documentary puts ordinary people at the centre of the climate action solution. We witness five local yet universally relatable characters challenge the economic system depicted through anthropological snapshots: a young Indigenous activist named Crystal lobbies a mining company and leads a Tar Sands Healing Walk; American farmers Mike and Alexis resist a “fossil fuel frenzy”, a looming interconnected threat of oil, tar sands, coal mines, and railroad construction on their farmland; a Greek housewife Melachrini helps with leading a movement against a gold mine being built in Halkidiki, and Indian matriarch Jyothi leads villager protests against one of many power plant proposals in her country.

How is a movement united when one group’s success is linked to the continued constraints imposed on another?

A common theme among these five climate action leaders is resistance against police brutality and authority — with abundant media coverage and correspondence with fellow impacted groups, it seems that winning the fight is easy. The documentary galvanizes populist support of grassroots movements by insisting that global neoliberal policies can be changed. However, the depiction of the characters’ successes is too simplistic, diverging from the nuanced details of the book. The film doesn’t quite capture the reality of the time and perseverance it takes to rewrite the narrative that Earth is in our control, as sanctioned by years of neoliberal policies.

Moreover, the documentary doesn’t address how climate activists are constrained by international relations, even as their counterparts in other countries attempt to stand in solidarity. Klein brings us to Hamburg, where people took back the power through cooperatives generating electricity — a moment that serves as a paramount example in resisting capitalist doctrines. The film seems to hide transnational impacts of the movement. For instance, Germany’s pressure on Greece has induced draconian austerity measures and gold mine proposals for the latter, which is exactly what Melachrini was resisting. How is a movement united when one group’s success is linked to the continued constraints imposed on another? As such, the climate change issue is more nuanced than presented in the documentary.

The film doesn’t quite capture the reality of the time and perseverance it takes to rewrite the narrative that Earth is in our control […].

Klein also exclusively addresses a Global North audience to take action. The dominant narrative tells us that “we are the engineers of the Earth, a machine” wherein a seemingly inclusive “we” is used in an inherently exclusive way — the “engineers” were in fact historically dominant, colonial, and exploitative European states. The countries that are suffering most from climate change are formerly colonized and peripheral nations, the ‘Global South,’ so international environmental justice would feel like oppression for the countries who already hold power.

Global North activists recognize this paradigm created by colonialism, but it doesn’t justify inaction because the current climate crisis affects us all. The portraits of the five activists are varied in their provenance, yet similar in their collective desire to rehabilitate years of damage to Earth. Lewis and Klein capture the rewriting process through candid footage of activists resisting the police, company figureheads and politicians, juxtaposed against dreamlike melodies accompanied by idyllic footage of forests, lakes, and grasslands. The audience peers into the climate activists’ worldviews, as Klein narrates their local stories, without losing the main point of the documentary, a universal call to action.

This Changes Everything […] calls for […] a collective effort to rewrite the narrative that the Earth is an exploitable machine.

Klein’s book provides a good introduction to environmental justice, highlighting the effects of neoliberalism, capitalism, extractivism, and how our current economic system undermines our Earth. As a popular education documentary, the film avoids heavy ideological terms for ease of viewing and focuses on the stories instead. The result was inspiring, but it excluded some important details of the current climate crisis that may only be comprehensible in the book.

This Changes Everything is an accessible documentary that should be screened by student activists, organisations, and teachers to garner attention about a problematic narrative that has the potential to be rewritten – by us.


Downtown Screenings Under the Stars happens every Tuesday at 9pm until September 6.