Aga/Milko Lazarov

Bulgarian director Milko Lazarov journeys to Siberia to shape a mythic tale of physical and emotion survival in a frozen landscape. The depth of pain and passion that pass between Nanook and Sedna, two elderly indigenous Arctic dwellers, alternately contrasts with and is reflected by the haunting whiteness beyond their yurt. Click here for trailer.  •Availability: Opens September 4, New York City, Film Forum. Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this interview.

DT: You’ve said that your typography as a filmmaker is aesthetics and intuition. What did you mean by that?

ML: Every choice of an actor in the film, every element of the set design, every point of view of the camera—they are all subjected to the aesthetic understanding of the author. In the creation of a work in art in all its dimensions, there is no other starting point than that. Only the author and his intuition can translate a story or an impression into the language of art.

Mikhail Aprosimov (Nanook), ÁGA, Courtesy of Big World Pictures

Mikhail Aprosimov (Nanook), ÁGA, Courtesy of Big World Pictures

 

DT: You can see some of the same aesthetics at work in your film Alienation.

ML: Naturally, the two films have their own similarities and differences. Aga turned out to be more communicative. Aesthetically, the two films could not have many differences. What I love is carefully selected scenes and states.

DT: You’ve also said that the story of Aga could have taken place anywhere on earth.  Would you say that in that sense the film is an allegory or myth rather than a story about two people in the frozen north?

ML: Aga is a metaphor. A parable of the last family on Earth. A film about forgiveness and repentance. Indeed, the story could unfold anywhere in the world. Focusing on the Arctic wasteland makes it metaphorical. Aga delicately tries to bring up topics like the disappearance of small communities, the negative sides of the expansion of modernity. Climate changes. Aboriginal exploitation. All of this is looked at through the key of the parable.

DT:  If it’s an allegory, does that influence the way you go about making the film?

ML: Outside of fast-food-movies, cinema has always been allegorical to some extent. As a filmmaker, naturally this is my path as well. The intuitive retelling of exciting stories provokes a longing in me for concealed intimacy with the viewer; for an intense look at something simple, yet important.

Mikhail Aprosimov (Nanook) and Feodosia Ivanova (Sedna), ÁGA, Courtesy of Big World Pictures

Mikhail Aprosimov (Nanook) and Feodosia Ivanova (Sedna), ÁGA, Courtesy of Big World Pictures

 

DT: One of the beauties of the film is the interplay between its site-specific details and universal—even existential—arc. Did you consciously go after that interplay, or did it happen more subconsciously?

ML: I am not sure if I can answer this question correctly. There were moments in the making of the film when I tried to stabilize the story and not cross the line of the understandable. There were also moments when I was driven entirely by a metaphorical retelling. Driven by my own intuition. The answer to your question probably lies in the balance between the two.

 

DT: I also loved the parallel between the dissolution of the family in an environment that is itself threatened by climate change.

ML: I understand. With such minimalistic surroundings, the right direction is to stay close to the big task at hand. Everything in Aga is subjected to disappearance, dissolution, decay. If you want the film arranged in order, you have to follow the big task at hand.

Mikhail Aprosimov (Nanook), ÁGA, Courtesy of Big World Pictures

Mikhail Aprosimov (Nanook), ÁGA, Courtesy of Big World Pictures

 

DT: You depicted with great sensitivity the agony of the human world against the uncalculated unfolding of the natural world. That seems to be one of your themes.

ML: Undoubtedly. This is one of the dramatic directions in Aga. The main dramatic construction is also placed in this context. This is a grand conflict, both existential and civilizational. Our salvation as human beings lies in understanding this conflict.

 

DT:  Talk about your choice of Mahler’s Fifth.

ML: Mahler’s Fifth is the closest thing I can imagine for a beautiful end of Life; to the fearsome delight of destruction and the never-ending fusion with the incomprehensible.

DT: Were you afraid of comparisons to Visconti’s use of the same piece in Death in Venice?

ML: Death in Venice is one of my favorite movies. Visconti is a great master. The ending of Aga, and the characters’ sensation in general, is very close to the sensation you get from listening to Mahler’s Fifth adagietto.

 

DT: You were a foreigner making a film about indigenous people in a location where many indigenous people make their own films about themselves. How did you manage that potentially awkward situation?

ML: We encountered no difficulties whatsoever. Although the film was shot in Siberia, Russia, and part of it was shot in a diamond mine in a war zone, we encountered no particular difficulties to speak of. Everyone understood clearly that we were telling a story about the Northern people; that we were creating a unifying image of the Northern people. There is no ethnographic credibility in the film, everything in it is artistic fiction. But it has to be said that the main reason for us not having any difficulties during the production is because of Aga’s producer, Veselka Kiryakova—she is a person totally committed to meaningful cinema.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2019

Chasing Coral/Jeff Orlowski

Breaking with Director Talk tradition, we are presenting a write-up of Chasing Coral rather than an interview with the film’s director. Jeff Orlowski’s schedule was too packed to arrange a chat, but we felt that the film is too important to pass by.  •Availability: Streaming now on Netflix, and available in select theaters. Thanks to Kate Patterson, Brigade Marketing, and Kim Parker Gordon, Netflix, for arranging a screening.

To most of us, the oceans are alien worlds, populated by strange creatures who live  in unknowable depths. Yet oceans are the source of all life on earth. They control our weather and air. They provide us with pleasure, food, raw materials to make cancer-fighting drugs. They inspire love.

For all that, we’re killing the oceans and the remarkable creatures who live there. It’s a simple but tragic process: The carbon dioxide we pour into the air traps heat; 93 percent of that heat is absorbed by the oceans. (Without them, the average land temperature would be 122 degrees.) In the process, the temperature of the oceans has risen to such an extent that they’re becoming inhospitable to marine life.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the coral reefs, living superstructures that create their own habitats, much like cities aboveground. The reefs support vast quantities of fish, which many human communities depend on for survival. But in the last thirty years alone, 50 percent of the world’s coral has died, affecting a quarter of the life in the oceans.  In twenty-five years, the oceans may be too warm for coral reefs to survive at all.  According to a March 15, 2017 article in the New York Times, “Hundreds of millions of people get their protein primarily from reef fish, and the loss of that food supply could become a humanitarian crisis.”

Richard Vevers, founder and CEO of The Ocean Agency, knew he wanted to address the calamity unfolding below, but he didn’t quite know how. Before entering the field of ocean conversation, Vevers had spent ten years as a top London ad exec, and he’d brought this advertising mentality to The Ocean Agency. The advertising problem with oceans, he discovered, was that they’re largely out of sight—and therefore out of mind. So he formulated an ambitious goal: revealing the oceans to the world.

But how best to alert a largely uncaring world to a problem they couldn’t see?  As it turns out, corals respond to rising temperatures by bleaching, or turning stark white. For an ad exec seeking to communicate the dire state of ocean affairs, that was an unfortunate response, because the white looked beautiful, not stressed. Vevers realized he needed to communicate the problem in a different way. One night, after watching Chasing Ice, the Emmy-winning documentary about the effects of climate change on the world’s glaciers, Vevers realized that the answer to his ocean problem was change: in order to move people to action, he had to show them what they were losing.

And so Chasing Coral was born. Vevers brought Jeff Orlowski, director of Chasing Ice, onboard, along with an amazing crew, who would use remote-controlled underwater time-lapse photography to document the ongoing death of coral reefs. They designed and created a revolutionary photography system, in which underwater cameras manufactured with 3D printers would be placed inside transparent bubbles and situated on the ocean floor, where they would communicate wirelessly with an operator sitting in a boat. There was only one problem: the system didn’t work. Under pressure to catch the corals before they died completely, they switched to the old-fashioned method: documenting the change by hand, making twenty-five dives per day along the Great Barrier Reef.

In the process, they discovered that stressed corals did more than turn a beautiful white: In their second stress response, the corals glowed, producing the equivalent of a chemical sunscreen to ward off the heat. It was as if they were screaming, in their final phase of death, Look at me. Please notice.

Shooting manually, the crew developed emotional ties to the reefs. Besides the utter beauty of the corals themselves and the astonishing creatures who live there, the crew’s love for the coral humanizes the reefs, giving Chasing Coral a stirring resonance.

Corals, when alive, are breathtakingly beautiful. They’re enchanting, and mysterious, and life-giving. We see all of that in Chasing Coral. But they are not only objects of beauty to be admired from a distance; they’re also valued neighbors in this ecological web we share with other lifeforms. That’s in Chasing Coral, too. And that’s the part we really need to see.

Go to chasingcoral.com to learn about how you can get involved.

 

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

 

 

 

Power to Change/Carl Fechner

In Power to Change, filmmaker and journalist Carl Fechner issues an open invitation to people around the world: Come join the energy rebellion.  Fechner speaks with members of Parliament, students, inventors, investors, and ordinary folks who understand the crisis of climate change and implement solutions in their own lives, from fighting for energy independence to reducing their personal carbon footprint through simple energy-saving techniques at home. Come: Join the energy rebellion. It’s an invitation we can’t afford to refuse. To learn how you can join the energy rebellion, visit the film’s website  Availability: Sunshine Cinema, New York City, April 5 and 6. Thanks to Thessa Mooij and Laura Schwab, Silversalt PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: What do you mean by “energy rebellion”?

CF: It means that people take power in their own hands. They make their own decisions to change to 100 percent renewable energy. They don’t wait for big companies with lots of money to do it—they decide to produce energy efficiently on their own. They decide to heat with solar collectors. All of these things, which everybody can do without the government, without laws: That’s what I call energy revolution, or energy rebellion.

 

DT: In the film, you present a selection of people who are participating in the energy rebellion, as well as the solutions they’re choosing, such as collective battery storage facilities, transport mobility, skysails, energy efficiency training.

CF: People know more about the problems than about the solutions. We know about all those catastrophes, but we don’t focus on the fact that there are lots of possibilities for everybody to solve the problem. We have this climate catastrophe coming up—the water level is rising, we already have more than 20 million refugees in Europe because of climate change. I don’t want to deny that, but the most important part is that people get the idea in their hearts, in their heads, that they can solve the problem, that they are responsible for their lives. Those are the prototypes of people we chose to be in the film, out of more than a thousand examples we found during our year of research. Our subjects all had ideas focusing on fighting for justice and fighting for nature. We chose people you could recognize anywhere. When we showed the film in Iran, people came up to me after the Q&A and said, “The guy in your film is like my brother” or “I am like him” or “He is like me.” It was very touching for me because we saw that this idea was starting to take hold. We showed this film in 350 cities in Germany, and you could see the people reacting.

To answer your question about solutions, you see a broad range in the film. In Berlin you see a man working as an energy efficiency expert [going to people’s apartments and analyzing how they can save money by using energy more efficiently]. He’s living on 380 euros a month, he’s very poor, but he’s fully engaged in this energy efficiency job because it gives him new courage and new ideas. For me, he was one of the most important.

 

DT: One of the solutions I found the most interesting was in Bordesholm, where they’re making their town completely energy independent, which seems to be the essence of what you’re talking about—people taking energy independence into their own hands, which is actually happening in Germany.

CF: It is happening. We’ve already changed our energy production, so that 33 percent of the electricity is coming out of renewable energy. This is only working because of the engagement of private people and small companies. The big international companies we have here in Germany, RWE or ENVW, have only 7 percent investment in renewables. Seven. So more than 2.5 billion euros in the past eight or ten years is coming out of normal people, with a little bit from the investment sector. That means a lot of people are changing their behavior, for example, not eating so much meat or flying less. It’s a movement in general society. In my company, for example, we don’t fly in the country anymore. Tomorrow I’m giving a keynote speech in Berlin. I’ll drive my electric car to the station in Stuttgart, where I’ll take the train, which gets me to Berlin in six hours. Before I always flew.

 

DT: In the United States, Germany, and the Ukraine, fossil fuel industries have been the major source of funding for totalitarian regimes, but energy independence would completely change international geopolitics. Can you talk about the effect of energy independence on global relations, as it was presented in the film?

CF: That’s why we selected Ukraine. Most people don’t know very much about the background of that war.  In the east of Ukraine they have very big coal mines; nearly 90 percent of the energy used in Ukraine, which is a rather big country, comes out of that region. The war is about that, among other things. Their movement for energy independence is growing bigger and bigger; the minister of the environment says they could be energy independent [from Russia].

At the moment they are codependent not only on Russia but on other countries too. There are lots of American companies, for example, that are already involved in fracking there. That’s what it means to be dependent. For example, Germany at the moment is dependent on Turkey, that’s why we are so soft on Erdogan. Dependence is always a problem, especially if you are dependent on power for electricity and heating. Years ago people were dying in Ukraine because of lack of gas when Russia stopped gas imports into the country. Energy autonomy would have a very big role in the war, and that’s why we say in the film that it’s a very important subject for peacemaking.

 

DT: One of the people you profile in your film is Mr. Roughani, a wealthy businessman who’s considering joining the energy rebellion by remodeling his company.

CF: In 2015, we had more than a million refugees in Germany. Chancellor Merkel said, “OK, we got it, no problem,” and she’s right. For all the trouble that causes, we’re very happy about people like Mr. Roughani, who’s a refugee from Iran, and Anya, from the Ukraine, who have come to us and are now part of the solution. Mr. Roughani is a rich young man who’s decided to take his business more and more down a renewable energy path. He’s changing not only his company but his personal behavior as well.

 

DT: In order to get people on board the energy rebellion, they have to understand the problem of climate change, but many people say it’s simply too big to grasp. As I was watching your film, I was struck by an analogy that might be useful: we’re like a person who has a heart attack, who’s told that he must change his diet if he wants to survive.  It seems like a useful image because everyone can understand it. And the fact of the matter is that  unless we change our energy diet, we’re not going to survive as a species.

CF: The image of a heart attack is right, and there are many good reasons to change. Unfortunately there are many very powerful people, rich people, who are fighting against that. They’re fighting against their personal health, if you stay with your image.

This struggle  is not over at all—it’s getting even more difficult. In my previous film, The Fourth Revolution: Energy (2010), we interviewed Hermann Scheer [Member of the German Parliament, President of the European Association for Renewable Energy EUROSOLAR, Chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy WCRE]. Ten years ago, he said, “We have 5 percent renewable energy, we want to take it up to 10 percent.” Today we’re starting at 33 percent. The big companies, as well as the part of the government that is dependent on these big companies, are really losing money. That’s why this fight is harder, that’s why we speak now about resistance: we really have to fight for all that. Perhaps it is a final fight.

We would like to leave atomic power in Germany, but in France they have more than 80 percent of their energy produced by atomic power. We have a long way to go, but we don’t have the time for that. In Germany and other industrial countries we have to go down to 0 carbonization, 0 production, by 2040. If not, the planet will heat by two degrees. That means we have only 23 years. That’s very close. That’s why we say it requires a big change in people’s minds, in their self-definitions. That’s why we speak about a revolution—an energy rebellion.

 

DT: You’re truly talking about a worldwide revolution of values, of lifestyles, of a way of relating to each other.

CF: Yes. That is what we’re thinking about, and that means that we have to change our focus. These are personal decisions.  I wanted to stop making films after making The Fourth Revolution, but there was a lot of interest in this film. People say that the energy revolution is working.

We need to make personal decisions in our hearts. That’s why we made this film. We didn’t just share optimistic people with good solutions—we issued an invitation to everybody to be part of this movement, because I think it’s better to invite people than to shock them.

 

DT: The United States has a president who wants to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, which is headed by Scott Pruitt, who doesn’t even believe that climate change is man-made. How big a threat is that to the global situation, and also to the energy revolution?

CF: In the beginning, many people were really frustrated about the election in America, especially when we saw that he’s not only talking about what he calls change but doing it.  But now we see here that people are beginning to realize they have to fight for their ideas. If they don’t, they’ll get a situation like America. So there’s increased resistance, and perhaps that’s a good message that we have from this man. Never again, an election like that. However, in Switzerland, for example, people had a referendum about stopping atomic power at once or in ten years, and they voted for ten years, so we don’t have to look as far away as America to see people deciding something strange. But never give up, never give up the movement, especially when you’re tired.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

The Age of Consequences/Jared Scott

In The Age of Consequences, generals, admirals, Pentagon officials, climate scientists, and military veterans analyze the impact of climate change on global stability and national security. Director Jared Scott illuminates the connections between drought, the conflict in Syria, and the rise of ISIS; extreme weather and the Arab Spring; desertification and the refugee crisis in Europe.  The message is clear: unless we make drastic changes in our attitudes toward climate change, its sociopolitical consequences–failed states, terrorism, refugees–will threaten our security as much as rising sea levels, intense storms, and heat waves will. To view the trailer, click hereAvailability: Opens January 27, New York City, Cinema Village, with international rollout to follow. Click here for screenings. Thanks to Weiman Seid, FAT DOT, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: The thesis of your film is climate change presents a challenge to national security. Let’s talk about the mechanisms that make that work—humanitarian crises, failed states, radicalization—as they were presented in the film.

JS: The important thing to note is that climate change is always one factor in a confluence of many sociopolitical factors. It can help spark, perpetuate, aid and assist in conflict, unrest, migration, security issues, humanitarian crises; all these issues are intertwined. In the film we try to make the point that when climate change impacts occur—resource scarcity, drought, desertification, competition of resources, sea level rise—they interact with other factors. That’s what the military establishment calls a threat multiplier or an accelerant of instability or conflict. It’s not that climate change causes these directly, it’s that there’s systemic risk. Climate change exacerbates everything else.

 

DT: In the film climate change is presented as a stimulus that agitates underlying conditions of instability into conflict.

JS: Exactly. There are a number of different ways to say the same thing. As you quote Sharon Burke [Senior Adviser, New America, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy] in the film, it’s always about how climate change interacts with other preexisting problems.

 

DT: You include a number of case studies in the film. Let’s talk about the sequence on Syria and how climate change impacted the political situation there.

JS: You look at the Arab Spring, you look at the Fertile Crescent area, you look at Syria specifically; in a lot of these instances there have been studies that try to do an autopsy on how climate change has effected a certain kind of environmental impact. We know this is a difficult thing to do. There’s a baseball steroid analogy: baseball players have always hit home runs. After they started taking steroids, they still hit home runs, but now they’re hitting them farther and more frequently. It’s hard to say, “That home run is because of steroids and that one isn’t,” but we know the whole game has changed. You can use the same idea with climate change. With every storm surge, it’s not that this storm is there because of climate change—it’s more likely that we’re going to have more storms and they’re going to be more intensified.

When we referenced Syria in the film, we referenced a quantitative study that looked at the drought over a period of years. What Colin P. Kelley and Richard Seager and a number of others set forth in that study, published by the National Academy of Sciences, was that in this particular instance, climate change made the drought in Syria two to three times more likely. In the film, we point to that study to confirm the idea that climate change was at play in the Syrian civil war. To what degree? I don’t know; this report was their attempt to quantify it. You see that and say, climate change played a role in the drought, the drought played a role in migration and destabilizing parts of the country, and then you have to see how all that stuff snowballs and interacts.

You have the Assad regime, which isn’t subsidizing farmers’ losses. You have well drilling that’s inadequate and bureaucratic. You have people that are then on the move. You have prices going up. You have unemployment. You have lots of poor governance. You have a lot of unrest.  All of this stuff comes together and combines and creates this issue. You also have to realize we had a lot of people on the move from the conflict in Iraq going all the way back to 2001. I had a Syrian sit down with me and map out the demographics of Syria. It’s incredibly complex—different types of people from different types of places who have settled here, who have settled there, who belong to this, who belong to that. Clearly that extends into Iraq. The borders around some of these countries in the Fertile Crescent aren’t always clear-cut; there are all sorts of other societal tensions that you have to consider. Once you uncover all of that, you see that how everything interacts is quite complex. But the basic concept is pretty simple: climate change can take something like a drought and make it worse; that environmental factor can then play a role in other sociopolitical factors. The whole thing ultimately comes to a head, like the conflict in the Syrian civil war.

DT: One of the factors you cited was that climate change can lead to variability in rainfall. Controlling water then becomes critical, and ISIS used this as an instrument of war.

JS: The idea of controlling water and food in conflict goes way back. People have always used resources to subjugate and control other populations, and harm other people. What we’re trying to show in the film is that you have to consider the use of water scarcity not just as a weapon of war but as an issue that can lead to all sorts of unrest, competition, conflict. You have to realize that every case is different, but it’s always going to play a factor in a number of different ways.

 

DT: Let’s talk about another issue brought up in the film: globally interconnected systems—in this case, food. Can you talk about what happened when fire destroyed the wheat crops in Russia and destabilized the Middle East in 2010?

JS: As I mentioned, there are a number of factors at play here, but what we tried to do in the film was lay out a few key factors in how they connect. We make those connections in what we call the nexus, which is a graphic treatment that shows this constellation of factors. In the particular case that you’re referring to, heat waves led to drought, which led to the destruction of the wheat crop in several countries, including Ukraine and China and Russia. Wheat is a commodity traded on the global market, but when the Russian crops failed, they banned the export of wheat. A number of dynamics then took place on the international stage. China started to panic-buy, while in North Africa and the Middle East, where a lot of countries import their wheat, you saw a price hike. In Tunisia and Jordan people were holding baguettes in the street, chanting, “Bread and freedom,” and the same chant was heard in Egypt.

In certain regions of Egypt, the price of wheat shot up 300 percent. When the majority of the population is dependent on these imports for food and that price hikes significantly, where you either have food and you’re paying a lot more for it or you don’t have food and can’t pay for it, people are going to get unhappy, and they’re probably going to do something about it. That can then aid and abet smoldering embers that already exist from other injustices, other problems, other societal tensions and factors. This can be a spark, as we saw in the film.  In Tahrir Square in Cairo there were many other political points they were upset about,  but in the rural areas in Egypt, where people were more affected by the price hikes, you saw a sense of solidarity around the movement.

If you look at the Arab Spring, there’s a conflagration of different people coming together to create this wildfire that swept the nation, and this was clearly one of those factors. There was another study, which we don’t reference in the movie, that says that climate change is estimated to have made the extreme heat wave in Russia in the summer of 2010 approximately three times more likely to occur than it would have otherwise.

The important thing to note is that you want to be careful. I try to be very clear that there are a number of caveats. I can’t just come out and say climate change is the biggest national security risk to the country: I can’t say that without an asterisk. That’s the advantage of a long-format documentary. We live in a very sound-byte-driven news world. A lot of people do skim news reading, just flipping through Facebook—we saw the problem with how fake news propagates there—so with a documentary the point is not to be as sound-bytey; not as pithy. Of course you still have to boil the essence down, but you also want to have a long-form discussion.  I think we paint a pretty clear picture in the film that is backed up by really respectable voices and facts. Nevertheless, we do want the audience to have a visceral experience that climate change is not just an esoteric issue that they can’t touch or see but is something that it is happening right now and is playing a role in conflict and will continue to play a role in conflict even moreso moving forward.

 

DT: At a symposium following one of the screenings, one of the audience members wondered if perhaps the film is a bit fear-mongering. What do you think?

JS:  I don’t think it is. With a climate change film—or any social issue film—people come with a lot of preconceived notions and ideas, even answers. Based on that availability heuristic, people are going to have different responses to the film. People who know all this stuff will just say, “I’ve heard all this before.” Our goal was to look at what’s called in organizing terms a spectrum of allies. The idea of the spectrum of allies is to try to target an audience—in this case, our passive allies or our neutral allies—and try to get them one step over on the pie chart to being more active allies.

I think that some of those people just don’t recognize that there’s a problem. I understand that. I empathize. I feel the same way. Sometimes it feels like a clear and present danger, and other times it feels like this faraway, esoteric slow burn. It’s not like a stampede of wild elephants, it’s not a gun to the head, so what we tried to lay out is that if people don’t recognize that there is a problem, then they’re going to be less inclined to find a solution. I see zero fear-mongering in what it is we lay out, but we do want to paint the picture that there’s a problem. It’s just like the scientists: It’s not that the scientists are alarmists; it’s that the science is alarming. It’s not that we’re trying to scare people; it’s that this information is scary. So yes, it’s grim, but we tried our best not to make it sensationalized. You don’t hear that reality TV drumming. We didn’t try to make it seem apocalyptic. We really tried to keep it cinematic and thoughtful and highbrow so people wouldn’t consider it over the top. I think we did a really good job of finding that balance, and I’m really proud of my whole team, who scrutinized every section and every shot and every fact to strike that balance. So in short, I say absolutely not, but everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.

 

DT: Climate change greatly affects the most vulnerable people on the planet. In your view, is it possible to separate climate change from climate justice or social justice issues?

JS: Just as I’ve been unable to talk about how climate change impacts conflict without mentioning other sociopolitical factors, I think it’s really hard to talk about climate change without discussing justice issues and equality issues. It’s all of these issues. For so long we’ve thought of climate change as just an environmental issue, but we’ve seen that change. Clearly it’s an issue of national security, it’s an economic issue, it’s a health issue, it’s a social justice issue, it’s an environmental justice issue. It’s a political issue. It’s an all-of-us issue. It’s an everything issue. It’s really hard to divorce the issue from all these overlapping issues. In many ways climate change is the lynchpin that weaves in and out of all this stuff. What we do know is that if we get climate change right, we get a lot of other things right as well.

 

DT:  In 2015, the National Security Council included climate change as one of the top eight strategic risks to this country, along with a catastrophic attack on U.S. soil and WMDs. Can you address this issue?

JS: We’ve seen the issue of climate change as a national security risk appear not only in documents signed by the Secretary of Defense in the DOD’s quadrennial defense review, the bedrock strategic document  for the department, but we’ve also seen it in the intelligence community, in the security community, and we saw it in the national security strategy that was released in 2015, where it’s listed as one of the top eight risks. You see this in reports from the Department of Homeland Security, it’s in CIA assessments, a number of other intelligence assessments. There’s been a lot of research and work on the part of the powers that be to understand the threat of climate change. It’s also important to note that the military is looking at this as a risk assessment. Although we have these institutions—the DOD, the DOS, the Department of Homeland Security, the intelligence community—the job of these government groups is to understand the problem and how it all fits together. That doesn’t mean it’s their job to fix it.

You have to recognize that this is still a civil society issue because you have a civilian-run government; the commander in chief in power asks these departments to look at certain things. A new administration could come in and say, you know what? Stop looking at this. It doesn’t mean they’re going to scrub this from the records, but there could be different directives that come into play, because we do have a civilian-controlled military and certain directives could change that. As of right now, under the [Obama] administration, we see the issue of climate change as being a strategic risk in a number of different papers and reports in a number of different agencies.

 

DT: Most Americans don’t realize that the largest U.S. naval base in the world, at Norfolk, Virginia, will be inundated by 2040 due to sea level rise. Most Americans also don’t realize that the navy has a task force on climate change or that the navy plans to generate all their electricity through natural resources and biofuel. Trump is putting a lot of generals in his cabinet. Given the military’s interest in climate change, do you think they’ll have any effect on the new administration?

JS: It would all be supposition at this point. Clearly the Trump administration has vowed to dismantle the EPA and cancel the Paris Accords and roll back a lot of the executive orders put in place by the Obama administration. There might be some cognitive dissonance in there, but unfortunately what we’ve heard is that the trend is going to be against combating the issue of climate change. I mean, we just had Rex Tillerson, an oil executive, approved as Secretary of State, so it doesn’t look good. I don’t know what kind of influence there will be in the DOD.  It’s a giant agency, and there are a lot of different views within it. It is a command culture, so when the top brass decides this is what they’re going to focus on, people follow orders. We’ll see if climate change is on that agenda, but based on some other early indicators, it doesn’t look likely.

 

DT: In your film, someone said, “We are now in the age of consequences,” which is obviously where the film got its title. What does that mean?

JS: That’s actually on the floor of the Senate, in 2007, and she’s quoting a report called “The Age of Consequences,” which was released by The Center for Strategic and International Studies. The film is actually an homage to that report, which  came out early on in the conversation.

There are three kinds of buckets. One is mitigation, one is adaptation, and one is consequence management—these are the three things we’ve got to deal with when it comes to climate change. Mitigation is the best choice. Adaptation is necessary to build a resilient society, and of course we know that there are going to be consequences. We can just sit back and brace for the worst, which I don’t think is a very thoughtful approach to dealing with climate change. Clearly, as we say in the film, neither does the U.S. military, intelligence agencies, and the security community writ large—not just in the U.S. but globally as well. We know that we can’t stop climate change, but we can still prevent unmitigated cataclysmic disaster. We have a choice. Do we want to just run eyes wide open into an accelerated age of consequences, or do we want to try to shift that to the age of resilience? It’s truly something that keeps me up at night, because as Michael Breen [former captain, U.S. Army; president and CEO of the Truman Project; cofounder, Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project] says in the film, I believe it’s the most difficult collective action we’ll ever face, and time is not on our side.

 

DT: Why did you make the film?

JS: I’ve made other climate change films, and it’s been really important to my filmmaking life to be able to try to educate and inspire and move people to action around this issue. When we set out to make this film, we were trying to find a way to engage new constituencies around the issue, our lofty goal being to create a new kitchen table conversation about climate change as an issue of national security, something that might pique the interest of people who don’t consider themselves self-identified environmentalists, or people who still think it’s an esoteric issue. Clearly there are some people who are active antagonists. What the spectrum of allies says, going back to that organizing term, is leave those people alone. Fair enough. You’re not going to always get everybody. But I think that for the rest of the people out there, other segments of society who aren’t part of the “climate choir,” you might have other entry points to understanding the seriousness of this issue. Our goal was to try to make something that would spark a dialogue, conversation—and hopefully action—with a whole new group of people.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

 

 

The Yes Men Are Revolting/Laura Nix with Yes Men Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno

Known for their activist media hoaxes designed to draw attention to social issues of critical worldwide importance, the Yes Men turn their focus on the biggest problem facing every person on the planet:  climate change. Inspired and recharged by the global movement that began with the Arab Spring and manifested in the US as Occupy Wall Street, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno take it to Shell and the International Conference on Climate Change.  Availability:  Opens June 12, New York City at the IFC Center; June 19, Los Angeles before expanding nationally; premieres on VOD and across all digital platforms June 9.  Thanks to Sara Sampson, Sara Sampson PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT:  On my way over here, I was thinking about something you guys said in the movie: during Occupy Wall Street, people finally understood the connection between money, corporations, and the environment. It suddenly struck me that social movements are a little bit like science; you put two and two together, make a discovery, and then define your actions from there. Is that the way you guys work?

 

MB:  When I think of science, I think of repeatable results.  Your idea means something to me in the context of successful social movements.  It’s like a way of looking at repeatable results…you get enough people involved, you get enough pressure on the right kind of government that can change or that can be changed… Actually, maybe it’s more like a recipe than science.

 

AB:  I think you’re trying to say that when people get together in large numbers to make a change, they win.  That’s a repeatable result.  Anything good that we’ve got now comes from social movements.

 

DT:  The five-day work week.

 

AB:  The end of slavery, women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights, the end of AIDS as a mortal disease.  All these things came out of a lot of sacrifice and social movements.  When people come together, they discover new things just by cross-pollinating, which I assume is the way science works. Shoot out an idea, and somebody else gets an idea, too.

 

DT:  For The Yes Men Are Revolting, you guys filmed a number of Yes Men actions, like launching the Survivaballs at the UN. Laura, as codirector, what kind of contingency plans did you make in case shooting was interrupted?

 

LN:  The thing I learned is that you can come up with as many contingency plans as you want, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to help.  I’m a big one for contingency plans. The Yes Men don’t do that as often, so you just have to do a lot of strategic planning on how the thing might unfold, or what will happen if a reveal happens too quickly. Then you have to be prepared for everything to just go out the window and be superfast on your feet and think really quickly to get the key moments of the scene as they unfold.  It’s the definition of best-laid plans going to waste.

 

DT:  Aside from making this movie different from the first two Yes Men films, why was it important to include your personal stories in The Yes Men Are Revolting?

 

AB:  For me it was important to show our evolution in the face of Occupy. To show where we get hope, we had to show us losing hope, and losing faith and giving up and wondering, What good is this action or that action? We wanted to show us getting frustrated in general and regaining hope when we saw a big movement. Some of the people in this movement said they were inspired by our movies, so we felt that what we do has a purpose. That was a big boost, and we wanted to convey that to audiences.  If you’re part of something bigger, that’s where the change happens.  It’s not in each action; it’s in the big picture, so never lose hope if your protest fizzles or your action doesn’t seem to achieve what it wants.  That was the reason for me.

 

MB:  I extend that to say that for this film we decided to be a little more straightforward and a little bit more honest with our viewers, and to show people a little more about who we are. I think that creates a more compelling film for most people. Because they feel they get to know us, they identify with our struggles, whether in the suspense of an action or the types of things that we go through that are similar to the things everyone goes through:  How do I balance my work, my relationships, my family with my desire to create change in the face of what seems like immovable forces but in actually are not? These personal stories help tell the bigger story, which is how to create change.

 

DT:  For me it also indicated that you guys are regular people. Folks lose sight of that and think you’re some sort of superheroes, but you’re not.  You’re people just like everybody else, which means that everybody else has the capacity to do what you do, at least in theory.

 

LN:  Exactly.  I think the other two films even went for that superhero approach as a way of driving the story, but I think the fact that Andy and Mike struggle and sometimes fail is really key, because in the experience of doing activism, you feel like you’re failing.  On any given day after you do an action or you’re at a protest, you don’t walk away thinking, Yay, we solved racism! You think, Oh God, did I accomplish anything?  Over time things do shift, and that’s part of how social movements work, but you have to have this amazing faith to keep going. Rather than hide that and act like these guys never have those doubts, it felt really important to show them having doubts and wondering about their impact in the midst of doing an action.

 

DT:  I think it was a really good choice. Andy and Mike, you’re both children of Holocaust survivors.  Did your parents ever talk about the Holocaust, and if so, what effect did that have on you?

 

AB:  My dad preferred not to talk about it, but eventually he did because I kept asking.  I realized there was something important there, so I learned, especially as a teenager, what he had been through and what it meant. I think it’s basically a lesson that you can’t rely on established structures to bring good things. You can’t just take things on faith—anything. It’s about how important it is to question and fight, and to realize that where positive changes come from is not power structures; they’re just tools, which can be either great or terrible.  Real change happens because of social movements.  I think that’s the ultimate lesson.

 

MB:  My mother was not a Holocaust survivor, but my father was.  He talked about it a little bit, and my grandmother talked about it a little bit, but now my dad’s increasingly talking about it.  Because he was relatively young during the Holocaust and most of the survivors are dead now, he tours around and gives speeches to schoolkids. That’s become his thing, since he’s one of the few who’s still alive. That was also another sort of creeping, unrecognized inspiration for including the personal stuff in the film; our parents are getting quite old, and there is definitely a lot of influence there in what we ended up doing, even though it was more intuitive, not really planned, not something I think about. Having a sense of justice—or a sense of injustice—is what came from it for me. Knowing from a very early age that there is injustice and having that told through the story of the Holocaust is what lay the framework for politicization.

 

DT:  Has your role as social activists changed?

 

AB and MB:  Yeah!

 

DT:  OK.  How?

 

AB:  In the first movie, you see that it all happened by accident. We found ourselves with a platform to talk about the World Trade Organization and the rules that were established to enforce the rule of capital, so that’s what we did. We gave these talks and filmed them and wrote books and made our point as loudly as we could. Then at a certain point a friend from Greenpeace approached us and said, Why don’t you try to focus on the Bhopal catastrophe and what’s going on there; it’s a really concrete example of everything you’ve been saying about what’s wrong with letting capital decide for itself. That was the start of working with organizations and groups of activists like Greenpeace. After that we just never looked back and always worked with groups.  At a certain point, we started doing workshops with grassroots activists and helping them come up with their own ideas. That was the Yes Labs, which we’ve morphed into an online version called the Action Switchboard. In July we’re starting to give an eight-week workshop course online. So that’s a big shift.

 

DT:  The University of Hawaii just announced plans to divest from fossil fuels by 2018, like two hundred other academic institutions.  Mike, in 2014 you gave the commencement speech at Reed College, during which you announced that you had convinced the board to divest, even though that was not the case.  A number of students were upset when they found out your announcement was a hoax. Does that matter?

 

MB:  It matters to them.

 

DT:  Does it matter in terms of the work you’re doing? Could something like that backfire? Many of these students are activists themselves.

 

MB:  Not really.  The work we’re doing upsets people, but we’re not doing it to make friends.  We’re not doing it to become popular.  It’s our role to sometimes upset people by making them believe a lie for a moment. If the students at Reed were upset just because they felt their commencement was ruined, that’s a different thing from being upset that the school isn’t divesting.  If they’re upset that the school isn’t divesting, then hopefully some of them are also motivated to do something about it.  If they’re upset because their commencement was ruined, then I would ask, What’s the purpose of the ceremony?

I did meet a few parents who were upset, but oddly the thing they were upset about was what I said about Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs famously delivered a speech at Stanford where he announced that people should do what they love. At Reed, I was saying that the era of doing what we love is over and that we have to work to make the change we need.

 

AB: It also fits into the cumulative thing.  Some students might have been upset, but probably not permanently.  If some of the things we do backfire a bit, it’s not the end of the world, either. A lot of other people are also doing things that backfire a little bit, but cumulatively it leads to something. After all, as you said, two hundred universities are divesting.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2015