Even after seeing the personal toll her climate activism takes on Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, it’s hard not to get swept away by how impressive she is while watching compatriot Nathan Grossman’s documentary I am Greta. Which leads me to ask him a rather naïve question: does he feel confident that the next generation have the power to avert the climate crisis?
“I think it’s so important that we don’t push this onto the shoulders of the next generation,” is his wake-up call. “That’s really what the film is about, I think, showing that these young people are the most important alarm bell the world has ever gotten. But at the end of the day, this is something that we, as adults and as a global community, need to tackle together.”
When Grossman first met Thunberg in August 2018, she wasn’t yet the global face of a movement, inspiring countless school kids to take to the streets and demand real action from our political leaders. There were no appearances on the nightly news, or audiences with world leaders. She was just one 15-year-old sitting outside the Swedish parliament with a cardboard sign saying, ‘Skolstrejk för Klimatet,’ which translates to ‘School Strike for Climate’.
Grossman was following a tip-off and decided to head down and have a chat with her, to sound out if there was anything in her message. He thought perhaps he’d spend a couple of days in her company. Half a year in, he was still shooting low-res footage, “Because I actually couldn’t imagine that it was going to go on to cinema,” he says ruefully.
Later that same year, school kids across Australia hit the streets in defiance of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who said, “What we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools.” Grossman knew then that this was much bigger than he could have imagined, and that he should have been shooting hi-res all along.
I am Greta also shows disturbing archival footage of pundits like Andrew Bolt apoplectically attacking Thunberg personally. Indeed, Bolt was taken to task by the Australian Press Council for a baleful spray including a smear against Thunberg’s Asperger’s syndrome: “I have never seen a girl so young, with so many mental disorders, treated by so many adults as a guru.”
Perplexed by these reactions, Grossman notes she faced similar abuse in Sweden. “I couldn’t really understand why they were so provoked by her that they would express themselves in that way,” he says. “She was just referencing United Nations reports made by the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]. Figures that were already out there.”
As he sees it, attack the numbers, not Thunberg, and you better have the peer-reviewed science to back it up. Luckily Thunberg has great support from her father Svante, a likeable character whom she bounces off with good humour in the doco. Their relationship underlines that her occasional mood swings are every bit as much about being a teenager as they are about her being on the autism spectrum.
Svante’s a stay-at-home dad, with Thunberg’s mother Malena Ernman a famous opera singer. Grossman would have liked to tease out the family dynamic more, but was limited by the film’s 90-minute runtime. There are heart-breaking video calls home from the deck of the Malizia II racing yacht, which ferries Thunberg sustainably to speak at the United Nations headquarters in New York. The film opens and closes with this rather tumultuous-looking two-week carbon-neutral voyage across the Atlantic. Designed within an inch of its life for speed, there’s no toilet on board. “They don’t even paint the inside of the boat, because they want to save weight,” Grossman notes.
Thunberg looks uncomfortable in the opening scene, but Grossman says she took to it more naturally than he did. “I’m 190 centimetres long and was never comfortable. I was constantly seasick. She and her father had to pep talk me.”
Meeting Thunberg has inspired Grossman to do more. “Of course it rubbed off on me. I wanted to shoot the film as green as possible. So when I’d film with her for a few days in Europe, I took the train back myself.” He did cheat with a flight home from New York. “Because sailing again over the Atlantic, I felt, no,” he laughs.
He feels privileged to have accompanied her on a game-changing year in her remarkable young life. “From that first day in Sweden, she was articulate speaking about the climate crisis, but she really developed her conversational and social skills, from being a little bit shy to actually opening up more, making some activism friends,” he says.
The doco also showcases her dry humour. One of the funniest moments is her exasperated eye-roll at the political pageantry of world leaders getting their photo opp without committing to real change. The usually slick French President Emmanuel Macron appears bemused when he meets Thunberg. “I don’t know French politics, but he seems like a person who always knows how to handle the situation, so this must have been weird for him,” Grossman agrees. “You know, in these rooms, we have so many ideas of how you should be. You should be so polite, and you shouldn’t be too hard on the details. But Greta, of course, she’s kind of doing the opposite. Wherever she gets space, she goes directly to the uncomfortable facts.”
Which takes us back to where responsibility truly lies for dealing with the climate crisis that has, understandably, lost some focus during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Seeing politicians that Greta has met, who said, ‘it’s so hard to tackle the climate crisis,’ digging deep and finding billions, creating new rules and so on, I suddenly actually got a little bit more optimistic,” Grossman hopes. “We need the will to treat the climate crisis like the corona crisis and use all the measures we have to create a safe future for these young people.”
I am Greta has a limited run in Australian cinemas from Friday, 16 October. Check here for details.
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