‘I Can Only Tell My Own Stories, the Ones I Can Connect With Personally’: Syed Jazib Ali

“Historically, climate conferences have been all about talking. But it’s time for the leaders of the world to stop talking and start listening, especially to the voices of the youth,” believes Syed Jazib Ali, a 26-year-old filmmaker from Kashmir currently based in Brighton, United Kingdom.

As part of the COP26 Universities Project, Ali has co-directed a short film called ActNow, which documents the concerns of the youth from around the world on climate change. The film will be screened at COP26’s Glasgow Science Centre on November 11.

“It’s a film about people’s lived experiences around climate change, about the hopes and the fears of youngsters from different continents. There are voices from Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe, with most of them being deeply personal stories from a generation that has seen a lot happen in very little time,” says Ali, constantly checking his audio connection on Zoom in the midst of a cafe full of chatter in Brighton.

Seven months ago, Ali had no intention of travelling to COP26 or having his work featured in front of world leaders and diplomats. When he found out that the COP26 Universities Network was looking for volunteers to help produce and direct a film on climate change, he instinctively signed up.

Ali’s application was selected, and his trailer calling for submissions as part of the film was well-received. He soon became a pivotal part of a project that would draw the attention of one and all in Glasgow. Stepping onboard as co-director of ActNow, Ali buried himself knee-deep in climate reading as he went about picking the most powerful voices that had arrived from young people across the globe.

“For ActNow we had an open submissions policy. The only criterion was that the storyteller had to be between 18 and 30 years of age. I was encouraged to see a lot of submissions from South Asia, including India. But the sheer volume of submissions from China surprised me a lot,” explains Ali, who entered an internet rabbit hole in search of Chinese rivers that had dried up after several Chinese youth shared stories around water bodies that were no longer carrying water in their homeland.

Also read: I Will Be 70 in 2070 – India’s COP26 Promises Will Determine My Future

The drying up of water due to global warming resonates personally for Ali, who recalls how the “natural springs in my village in Surankote, Poonch, near the Line of Control, have mostly gone dry due over the past few years. Earlier, when I was a kid, people would come together to use the natural springwater for all kinds of things – from drinking to washing clothes to bathing. But not anymore.”

It is clear from Ali’s voice that despite being some 4,000 miles away from his hometown, his mind constantly wavers to Kashmir, chiefly to his grandfather who is terminally ill. “My grandfather had this ability to look at the sky and predict exactly when it would rain. He would just gaze upwards and say, ‘It will rain at 2 pm.’ And it always did. His knowledge is immense, and I’m afraid it’s knowledge that will get lost if nobody documents it,” says Ali.

When speaking to Ali, one gets the feeling that there is a restlessness within him which he has been trying to tame and channelise for a long time. A restlessness to tell stories, to reveal the truth before it gets shrouded under the spell of time.

“We all contain stories within us. My fear is that when someone dies, their story dies with them,” muses Ali, before his profound observation is somewhat punctured by the noise of a toddler shouting in the vicinity.

After he is convinced he can be heard, Ali delves deeper into ActNow, talking about how generous and efficient the core team have been. “It’s been absolutely amazing to work with the likes of Amy Thompson from Bath and Katie Parker from Cambridge. Initially, I was skeptical of whether we would approach a complicated issue like climate from the same lens, given our vastly different backgrounds. But over time it became obvious that we shared many of the same grievances,” details Ali.

ActNow was selected to be an official green zone event at COP26 from among 4000 applications, something that makes Ali feel proud as well as responsible: “In the last few years, there’s been this idea of youthwashing around climate change…Getting young people to say a few things about how climate change is affecting them and leveraging that as a business or as the government to show how much you care about climate. Our film isn’t that. It’s a genuine chance for young voices to tell their stories and possibly, hopefully, make a difference.”

When Ali is asked about what he has made of the response to climate change from British locals, he gives an interesting answer, though not before taking his characteristically contemplative three-second pause: “I have to say…most people here don’t necessarily stay up to date with everything on climate change. Many had no idea what COP26 was. At the same time, I have seen several people, mostly youngsters, who’ve had issues around eco anxiety. That’s really scary.”

What is also scary, or at least worrying, is how inaccessible COP26 is for the common person, even for those in the UK. Ali reiterates this when he says “that the accommodation and transport are really expensive, even for me who is travelling within the UK to go to Glasgow. Imagine what it must be like for those who are coming from Europe or outside!”

Ali, however, is quick to mention that locals in Glasgow have been doing their bit, setting up local networks to organise cheap transport besides volunteering to host visitors. “They understand how important this occasion is, I’m glad they are chipping in,” adds Ali, who will be working closely with the media wing of the COP26 coalition and covering the events and marches involving indigenous representatives from South America in Glasgow.

Inevitably, the discussion shifts to India and the role of the Narendra Modi government in tackling climate change. Initially, while heading into COP26, India had made no official commitment to achieve net zero emissions. A few hours after the interaction with Ali, India announced its net zero pledge for 2070, which seems aeons away.

“I agree that the Global North is more responsible for environmental damage, and that countries like India can have a hard time balancing climate obligations with economic development and lifting people out of unemployment and poverty. But, at the end of the day, India decided to attend COP26, so they must have something to offer. You can’t come all the way to Glasgow only to deflect the blame on the so-called ‘developed world’,” observes Ali.

As Ali talks about the actions of the Indian government, there is a hint of a shift in his tone. The candour fades away and there is active consideration behind every word he utters. “I have to be very careful about what I say being from where I am,” admits Ali.

Also read: Will COP26 Deforestation Pledge Be a Game-Changer, or Just More Broken Promises?

Even though Ali’s verbal punches lose a bit of their sting, he doesn’t pull them away. “Have you seen the Central Vista project and the environmental disaster it’s going to unleash? It just doesn’t make any sense,” reflects Ali.

Ali is much more comfortable talking about a macro question that involves India without remaining confined to it – the question of whether democracies are proving to be structurally inefficient at dealing with climate change vis-à-vis authoritarian regimes like China.

“Ah, eco authoritarianism, I see what you mean. But honestly, I think the problem is not too much democracy, but too little. Working on this film has made me realise the power of getting people together to kickstart a dialogue, something that has not been happening in too many democracies. In the long run, I don’t think the Chinese approach of environmental progress within the same system that suppresses human rights is the correct one,” analyses Ali.

Ali’s words hang in the Zoom air for a few seconds before the conversation segues into representation. This time it is Ali who initiates: “People often ask me why I always keep sharing content about Muslims on social media…why not about other communities that are affected or even about Black Lives Matter since I’m in the UK.”

Ali proceeds to answer his query: “It’s because I can’t represent someone else if I can’t represent my own community. This is even more relevant in light of the resurgence of global Islamophobia…Storytelling is so important today, but as a filmmaker, I can only tell my own stories, the ones I can connect with personally.”

On November 11, Syed Jazib Ali will be telling a story at COP26 that is, in so many ways, his own. The leaders of the world will be listening.

Priyam Marik is a post-graduate student of journalism at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom.

Featured image: Special arrangement/LiveWire