How To Change the World review

how to change the world

‘Do you think you could be doing better with your life?’ a interviewer asks Bob Hunter, journalist/founder of Greenpeace. Never in most of my filmgoing life has such a question resonated in my mind than this snippet of footage captured during an interview with Hunter in the 70s when Greenpeace was starting out.

I quietly chuckle to myself because the truth is that I ask myself the same question everyday; the interviewer’s abrasive confrontation of Hunter is coarse enough to make even myself question why I do things.

How to Change the World, directed by Jerry Rothwell, chronicles the foundations of Greenpeace, now Greenpeace International, which started in 1971 with a group of men and women from a variety of different backgrounds who, through their varied skill sets, advocated for change through a variety of campaigns and environmental protests.

The film, which spans through 1971 and 1979 is filled with well-known environmental campaigns such as ‘save the whales’ run by a charming crew of peace loving environmentalists drinking, smoking and playing delightful tunes for the ocean’s inhabitants.

Flickering on screen is an image of three bearded men standing in an inflatable raft playing a set of woodwind instruments in hope of communicating with a whale, ‘We thought, can we communicate with the whales’ someone explains, followed by a short snippet of a guy playing a synthesiser on a boat.

Pure brilliance. How to Change the World is clever in how it goes about using humour to make a environmentally conscious documentary engaging and compelling to watch. Composed of interviews with key players and constructed by snippets of unseen archival footage, the film is woven together by the words of the late Bob Hunter (voiced by Barry Pepper) through first person narrative as a sort of overseer on this how to project. That said, much of the film’s success is due to Producer Bous De Jong’s close relationship with Hunter, whose charisma shines though in film, as Hunter worked closely with De Jong writing his own screenplay for this film drawn from his own personal journals and writings. This personal account on the history of Greenpeace is what brings intimacy to the story, quickly connecting viewers with the characters of the film inviting them to become part of their world.

Greenpeace, a well known founder and key player in ecology movement most prevalent during the 70s, has been pivotal in influence in the formation of environmentally conscious documentaries such as Psihoyos’ The Cove (2009) and Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish (2013) through its presentation of powerfully compelling images to seek a sensory response from all senses. The pull of highly emotive storytelling not only pioneers change but seeks to pioneer a response in viewers as a reaction to what they have seen.

Expectedly, How to Change the World contains footage that may be seen as confronting or distressing to some, but the film is not merely a visual assault on the senses. Rather, the film pulls back on this; viewers aren’t clouded by an instinctive recoil at the sight of blood, they aren’t forced to emotionally choose between a moral right or wrong, they aren’t told to pick sides but rather presented with facts which are raw and confronting.

The result is thus, viewers end up empathising with the struggles of the characters throughout the film, emotionally compelled to change the world alongside them, join them as part of their team, a sort of inclusivity only achieved through such personally told accounts.

Drawing parallels with the modern context of social media of which revolves around an immediacy of communication and globalisation of which has helped pioneer social advocacy, in particular environmental advocacy, the early structure of Greenpeace was the basis of effective communication not only effective in its understanding of the power of media but the influence of the image as a powerful tool for cultural change.

How to Change the World highlights how effective communication shifts perspectives through a revelation of images, as opposed to a strike or a demonstration, resonating with the idea that film, in particular the documentary form is powerfully influential on culture.

That said, differing perspectives always come into play despite commonalities of a shared group purpose. Ambitious, ‘it was the realisation that a small group of individuals could make a difference’, the achilles heel of the Greenpeace group of the time, and the soul reason why many of our own group projects tend to fail or at least scar you with a hatred for humanity is this; everyone tends to have their own way of doing things leading to a sense of misguided direction and purposelessness.

You see, starting out with an idea or a project isn’t the problem, activism isn’t the problem, the problem itself isn’t even the biggest problem. Rather, the method of how we all go about changing the world is often flawed by personal conflict and disagreements. We all have our own ways of doing things, our own procedures, our own instruction manuals. There is no right or wrong way to go about creating social change but there always will be disagreements, tension and as Hunter puts it simply, ’the threat of social change is always ourselves’.

How to Change the World is a film which forces you to think about these tensions. Is it cowardly not to confront change head-on but to hide behind a screen aware of the problems displayed upon it? Does clicking the ‘like’ or ‘share’ button to show support or awareness enough to warrant effective and purposeful activism through the use of social media driven clicktivism? As a documentary viewer is it socially and politically correct to merely sit behind a screen and observe what unfolds?

Dear readers, in all honesty I myself am not too sure what the answer is, as I too tend to fall into the trap of familiarity and comfort with my habits, even when writing a review on a film like this. As the title suggests, How to Change the World invites a reaction and seeks an explanation from its viewers. So, before you click away from what I’ve written let me ask you to ponder the following question, ‘Do you think you could be doing better with your life?’

The film is out on September 17, 2015



Review by Addy Fong