When award-winning filmmaker Emily James wanted to make a sympathetic documentary about some of the UK's climate change activists, the broadcasters didn't want to listen. So she went off and shot it independently. Just Do It: A Tale of Modern-Day Outlaws, is the result.
This is a grassroots film. Do things like Twitter help get the word out there?
“Definitely. Facebook even more so, to my [chagrin]. I'm not a big Facebooker, but last October  we ran a big push on our crowdfunding. We had a match fund from Lush, the soap people, so they would give a pound for every pound that was donated in the next three weeks. During the space of that three weeks, we had tons of traffic to the website, and the traffic coming via Facebook outnumbered everything else put together. It's really fascinating: we had an article in The Independent and I think we had a couple of hundred hits through the Independent website, but like 500 that day through Facebook.”
Are you still reliant on donations to keep the ball rolling?
“Very much so. We've got the film finished now, so it costs just as much to release a film as it does to make one. On The Age of Stupid, that film cost £450,000 to make and another £450,000 to release. Our film cost £80,000 to make so we're vaguely trying to raise that same amount again to release it. But the truth of the matter is we'll make the money go as far as we can, and for every pound that's donated it means there's probably another person out there that's going to get to see it, or another opportunity for us to put on a free screening, or train fare for me to go to, say, Scotland, to do Q & A's, that kind of thing. So it really is about getting the word out and trying to support that.”
Did you ever consider a cross-platform release, or would the costs be prohibitive?
“Well we do intend to do an online release when the time comes. For a feature documentary it's really important to get in to film festivals and, unfortunately, all film festivals are still quite old-fashioned and won't take the film if it's been online already. Once we've got our film festivals out of the way, there's a wee chance [laughs], not a big one, that a broadcaster may take it. So we're talking to the BBC, which would obviously be our first choice, and they won't take it if it's been online also. So once that's out of the way, we do intend to release a Creative Commons version that will be available for peer-to-peer sharing and BitTorrent, all that kind of stuff.”
With regards to television, are there any legal issues that surround the film?
“We've got media lawyers that have looked at it and, from their point of view, there's nothing that they think would need to be changed. But you know what the law is like: you have two lawyers and you get three opinions. So it really would be down to the individual broadcaster and how their lawyers interpret the situation.”
Were there things you were concerned about?
“ Well the standard things are libel. So, I thought going into it, that there would be some issues with libel, that the activists would be making libelous accusations about corporations and stuff. But actually, as it happens, there's not a lot of that. Also, we use quite a lot of news footage and we're commenting on it – and our lawyers are happy with the extent we're commenting on it – but that doesn't mean Channel 4's lawyers would be. Broadcasters' lawyers tend to be a little bit more cautious, because they are protecting their client, and the deep pocket of their client. Our lawyer only has to protect us, and we don't have very deep pockets. “
Was there stuff you filmed that was potentially libelous and you left it out for that reason, because it was problematic?
“No, actually. We made a decision quite early on that we weren't going to censor ourselves. We would wait until the lawyers took issue with things and then deal with it at that point. So we put in everything we wanted to put in and were quite surprised when they gave us a relatively clean bill of health and didn't ask for any changes. Like I say, it might be different with broadcasters. I think the things that they will struggle with is just more the wider political nature of the film and how that fits into their editorial agenda.”
You question the balance of mainstream media reporting on this subject in the film. Do you regard yourself as the balance?
“Yeah, in a way. This is a question that has come up a lot: 'Emily James, where has your objectivity gone?' to which I respond, 'What objectivity?' I'm being flippant but yeah, people are concerned. Because of the nature of the subject matter there's a lot of: Is it balanced? Is it objective? That sort of thing. But I think if you look at the way news reports about these subject matters, what passes for objectivity is so grossly unbalanced that the whole question is moot after a while. So it is the case that I'm largely speaking on their side and it's a sympathetic portrait, but I do think that that basically is trying to round out the story in the public domain, as opposed to being bombastically propagandistic.”
Is total objectivity ever really possible in documentary making?
“Objectivity is quite an elusive thing to give and anybody that tells you're they're being completely objective is either lying or being self-delusional. You can aim for it. There's a lot of things you can put in practice to try and ensure that you're hearing both sides so that you're not just being swayed in one direction. That's important. But filmmaking is inherently subjective.”
But aren't you, in some ways, in danger of just preaching to the choir in Just Do It?
“If you look at a film like The End of the Line, I was working at Dartmouth Films when they were making it there and I was like, 'Okay, I know about this stuff.' Then when I finally got to see the film, I've never eaten sushi since, and I used to eat it all the time. So I would have been counted as somebody who was already converted in that kind of, 'Oh, aren't you preaching to the converted?' kind of way, and yet it moved me and changed my behaviour in a significant way. So I think on the one hand, there is nothing wrong with preaching to the converted, because they still need encouragement to be better people than they are, and all of those things. And this idea that we should be constantly trying to communicate to those people who are completely unconvinced or unconvincable is also self-defeating, you know?”
So what are you hoping to achieve?
“I guess people that it's really aimed at, in some way, is kind of where I was when I came to this film, and first started meeting these people. I had made quite a few films around climate change and around the issue, and in the process I had got myself quite well informed. I had worked on a series for Channel 4 called The War on Terra, and then I had worked on The Age of Stupid, with Franny Armstrong, and I had gotten myself to a point where I was actually quite despondent about how bad the situation was and how little I could do to effect change on it and had become quite nihilistic and given up. Then I met these people who knew how bad it was and they were still managing to kind of pull together and try to do something to aim in the right direction and kind of take action. I was inspired by that, and inspired enough that [laughs] I've gone through quite a difficult process making a film about them, because I felt more people needed to hear about that. More people needed to see that attitude and that response, because otherwise we really were going to go to Hell in a handbag.”
What were some of the hurdles that you had to overcome at the beginning of this process? You did try raising money from mainstream media, didn't you?
“We did. The first hurdle I had to overcome was getting people to agree to be filmed, which is quite difficult and took quite a long time to win people round.”
How did you convince them to participate?
“The primary concern was security and whether the footage could be ever be used against them or would end up in court. So I worked quite a lot with a legal firm that works a lot with activists to try and figure out what the real risks were, how I could keep that footage out of the hands of the authorities. So that involved not keeping any written logs of what I was filming in case they found the written log and said, 'Okay, we'll take that, take that, take that . . .' Keeping everything at a safe-house so it was never at my house. Labeling the tapes in this cryptic manner so if they ever did come across them they wouldn't know what it was. And I just started going to a lot of meetings, talking to a lot of people, allowing people to get to know me, allowing people to see what type of films I had made before. They could see I was politically engaged with them. And then as they got to know me they could see that I had no intention of selling them out.”
What was the broadcasters' response to your idea?
“I started filming and we started accruing a bit of material and after a while I started approaching broadcasters. Honestly, I wasn't very impressed by the response I got to it. Which was essentially that I was too much on their side. I remember at the time thinking to myself, if I had gotten access to fantastic troop of teenage youth dancers, who were involved in some urban contest, nobody would ever go, 'I think you're insufficiently objective about them. Why don't you ask them the hard questions?' At that point I was like, 'I'm not gonna make that film. I'm not going to pretend that I don't think what they're doing is a worthwhile thing, and I'm not going to make a film that they would be really unhappy with.' So we decided that we would have to do it independently.”
You filmed them breaking the law.
The film, I suppose, implicitly condones their actions. How do you feel about that aspect?
“I suppose, on the one hand, generally the laws that they're breaking only exist in order to punish activists. So the crime of aggravated trespass, which is what they normally get charged with, didn't exist until the legal system came up with something to charge them with [laughs]. And this is part of the reason why I have chosen the subtitle, 'A Tale of Modern Day Outlaws', because I wanted to kind of point at that and say, 'Are these people really criminals?' These people are some of the most altruistic people you will ever meet in your life. People who actually are the glue of society. Time and time again I get told stories by activists about what judges say in their sentencing and stuff, and they'll be sentencing them to like 180 hours of community service, and in the same breath acknowledging that these are some of the most stand-up people that they have ever met. The irony is so ridiculous. So I don't think what they're doing really is criminal.”
Is the power of Government, of corporations, of the police now so great that it's made the space in which people can protest so small, that it's inevitable laws will be broken?
“Well that's right. The minute you step out of line, if you do anything that genuinely threatens the status quo and the system, you will have crossed a line that they can get you on.”
When you followed the campaigners to Copenhagen in 2009, for the UN Climate Change conference, how much did you know about the way the police operated? In the film their powers appear to be absolute. Their powers were pretty absolute.
“Yeah, they could pick people up and pre-emptively arrest them. Well nobody knew, because it was a new set of laws. And that was possibly part of the scariest part of it, that the Danish parliament had empowered the Danish police with this almost carte blanche [power]. They had so much power that they didn't even know how much power they had, and so the situation would evolve in a very strange way. So when they came into the Candy Factory [the activists' HQ], they'd come in going, 'Well we no longer need papers. We don't have to have a reason and we can look wherever we want.' Then suddenly they'd go, 'And we can throw all the cameras out.' And you could hear the orders like trickling down from the top and suddenly it would change, and the rules would change, because they'd go, 'Oh, we didn't know we could that too.' So they were really making it up as they went along.”
“It's sad, really, is the word, because these are rights. Things like, as a journalist, to not have your material taken away without any legal paper work. They didn't even give me a receipt for it. I had no proof they'd taken it or anything. In this country that would be completely illegal but they were like, 'It's terrorism. We can do what we want.' These are rights we fought a long time to get. I mean generations fought really hard for the right not to be detained before you've committed a crime, or to have the liberty to complain about what the system is doing and to dissent from that. To see that not just being eroded but being completely washed away in one fell swoop - .”
Ironically, all of that was ultimately ruled illegal, wasn't it?
“After the fact, the Danish court said the pre-emptive arrests were totally illegal. But it doesn't matter because they got away with it in the moment. Police in this country do exactly the same things. They do things that they're blatantly going to get slapped down for later on. Different police constabularies even take out insurance for when they have to pay fines for having acted illegally.”
One of the young activists says that the experience in Copenhagen radicalised her and made her want to look more at the power structure and capitalism itself, rather than its actions per se. Did it have a lasting effect on you?
“It's interesting because I had been to quite a few summit mobilisations before so I've been to Genoa, for example, shooting a little thing for Channel 4, and to Quebec, back in 2001. Sophie, the person who said that, she had never been to something like that before. So I maybe have a little bit more distance from it. But at the same time it was quite a harrowing experience. I think that I shared that glimmer of hope in the back of your mind that they would maybe turn it around. That, somehow, they would see reason and sign a serious deal. Or at least if that wasn't going to happen, it was still our responsibility to go there and tell them that that's what we wanted. I don't think I was dispassionately connected in that sense.”
As you said, though, that hope was only a glimmer.
“Of course you know it's a hope in the dark, but you hope nonetheless. Watching the way that they repressed the activists on the street, it was so different from Genoa. In Genoa it was like southern European, hot-blooded fascism, and in Copenhagen it was like that more Germanic, northern European fascism, which was like cold and calculated and almost with a smile on their face. That was quite upsetting and I suppose a lot of people came back, like Sophie said, very disheartened and confused. I did remember having quite a few conversations with them, going, 'Don't let this beat you down. Let it make you angry and stand up against it. Because this is the way the world works. If you push against power, power will push back at you, and you need to understand that this is the journey that you're going on.'”
Just Do It: A Tale of Modern-Day Outlaws is in cinemas from today
© Stephen Applebaum, 2011