A 15-year-old girl, the Swedish parliament, and a placard that reads “school strike for the climate”. A few seconds ago, the audio and visuals were a stark contrast. The sounds of different men, one after the other, arrogant and authoritative: “The global warming is a money-making industry; it’s a hoax.” “It is fake news, fake science.” “Carbon dioxide is actually a benefit to the environment.”
The corresponding visuals tell a different story. Pedestrians struggling to walk amid heavy downpour — their umbrellas flapping. A factory chimney emitting noxious fumes. People covering their mouths in smoggy air. In less than five minutes, Nathan Grossman lays out the crux of his documentary: an apathetic, disintegrating world; a conscientious, rebellious teenager.
I Am Greta, which recently played at the I-View World film festival, chronicles a year in the life of environmental activist Greta Thunberg. Over the last two years, a lot has been reported and opined on Thunberg. But, at the end of the day, one of the most celebrated activists on the planet is still a teenager, a story in transition. Grossman’s piece follows her relentless fight in minute detail and, in the process, tries to find the girl behind the activist.
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The most striking thing about the documentary, at the start, is the access given to Grossman. He follows Thunberg and her father (Svante) almost everywhere, capturing her early days of activism — in her home, when she’s typing a tweet to Arnold Schwarzenegger; in the car, when she gets a call from the UN; in Katowice (Poland), where she attends her first high-profile conference — to her later days as a celebrity: meeting the Pope, attending the United Kingdom Parliament, spending 15 days on a racing yacht to New York City for the United Nations Climate Action Summit, and many, many more. If there were a significant event in Thunberg’s life that year, then Grossman’s camera was probably shadowing her. What he has managed, as a result, is not just a lot of footage, but a comprehensive sweep of someone’s life — this is nonfiction gold.
He also does justice to that material, imbuing his piece with a smooth illuminating narrative. There are no talking heads, no expert opinions, but time and again, Thunberg’s voice plays in the background, providing context to her journey. She says that she has “selective mutism”, that she doesn’t like socialising and small talk, that she likes routine, that she has a laser-like focus enabling her to concentrate on something for hours. Many news anchors, especially those who are hostile to her views, pay inordinate attention to her condition.
The documentary is also a quiet commentary on the callous and unfair modern-day media. The most scathing criticism flung at her has nothing to do with her activism: She’s called a “mentally-ill Swedish child”; there are numerous references to her disorder; one journalist tells her that she “suffers from Asperger’s” — Thunberg politely corrects him that she “has Asperger’s”, doesn’t “suffer from” it.
Grossman also benefits from his protagonist’s personality: she’s forthcoming, exploding, fascinating — a total badass. Thunberg’s not just an activist but also a performer, rolling out a string of memorable quotes: “Since all of our leaders are behaving like children, the children will have to take responsibility”, “we’ve started to clean up your mess, and we’ll not stop until we’re done”, “some would say we’re wasting our lesson time; we say we’re changing the world”.
We also understand that her convictions aren’t hollow, that she’s ready to honour her word. She’s perplexed that the breakfast options at the UN climate change conference include meat and dairy. She stops taking flights, travelling long distances for her speeches via buses, trains, and cars. In one memorable instance, which opens and ends the film, she’s on a yacht travelling to New York on a 15-day voyage.
But I Am Greta is much more than an impassioned rail. We see the innocence, excitement, and maturity of a teenager: Thunberg’s eyes light up as she gets a call from the UN, realising that her popularity is growing; reporters follow her wherever she goes, causing her to exclaim, “It’s like being in a movie!”, when she reads a nasty piece of criticism about her — which calls her “media’s Asperger’s darling” and “hungry for PR” — she dismisses it with a loud laugh. There’s also a tender father-daughter bond amid the chaos: Svante, who accompanies Thunberg to all her events, at times gets frustrated by her attention to detail; they often crack jokes and squeeze out some time to unwind between their hectic schedules.
Capturing reactions to Thunberg’s activism, the documentary also depicts the current state of the world: polarised, wounded, angry. If the strongman leaders, such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Jair Bolsonaro, deride Thunberg, then, at the same time, she has thousands of supporters. Her speeches resemble a music concert: the crowd applauds with feverish excitement; there are banners celebrating her, including one that reads, “Make the world Greta again”; her Copenhagen speech literally ends with a classic rock number, We Will Rock You.
Such frenzy indicates that this world needs a saviour — someone to admire, someone to emulate, someone to rely on. Thunberg’s activism is centred on an existential threat exacerbated by the indifferent global leaders; the fight for climate change, then, resembles many contemporary political struggles: the fight to dissent, to be heard, to be taken seriously. Thunberg repeats herself to the point of exhaustion — the acidification of oceans, the destruction of wildlife, soil erosion, deforestation, reduction of emission — and yet any meaningful change looks far-fetched. But if there’s any nuance to the climate-change debate, then the documentary isn’t interested in it; to any problem, the solution remains the same: listen to Thunberg.
But I Am Greta is nevertheless a fascinating portrait of a child forced to become an adult in a world where adults have relinquished their responsibilities. There are times, when the girl can’t help but come out. In the closing segment of the film, she gets overwhelmed by sorrow: she misses her home, her dogs, her routine. It’s an unsettling sight that says reams about our current times: a world on the verge of destruction accelerating the death of teenage innocence and bliss.
I Am Greta was screened as an entry in the I-View-World international film festival. I-View-World is an international film festival that provides new ways of seeing human rights cinema through the lens of gender marginalities and contemporary culture. The Wire is associated with I-View-World in a non-commercial capacity as a media partner.