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Film Review: How to Change the World

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It was just a week ago that Greenpeace activists in Portland, Oregon were hanging off the St. Johns bridge and kayaking in the Willamette River waters below to prevent a Royal Dutch Shell icebreaking vessel from heading to an oil drilling site in the Arctic.

These tactics aren’t too dissimilar from those employed by the first Greenpeace activists over 40 years ago; this latest protest ultimately failed, but so did the first one undertaken in 1971. The only real difference is that the footage capturing events today has a higher quality today.

The meaning though, and the passion, remains the same. The founding of the global activist group is chronicled in How to Change the World¸Jerry Rothwell’s fascinating and affecting documentary comprised primarily of never-before-seen footage and present-day interviews.

What started as a protest against President Richard Nixon testing a nuclear bomb in the small island of Amchitka off the coast of Alaska, spiraled into something far greater and powerful than anticipated. At the center was Robert Hunter, a Canadian journalist-turned-crusader, a man both humble and charismatic, focused both on the fine details and the big picture.

The documentary is as much about what Greenpeace did in its early days as how it did it. From protesting the bomb, this ragtag bunch of activists – draft-dodgers, vegans, hippies, spiritualists, among others – focused on illegal whaling. From seemingly different backgrounds and experiences, they enlisted together for a greater cause.  We bear witness to the inspiration and attention caused by this green collective, as well as how some personalities grew stronger and vocal as the group evolved.

HOWTOCHANGEWORLDThe results are varied: there are elements of comedy, shock, awe, and indeed, tragedy. Canadian actor Barry Pepper lends his voice to the film, narrating records and journals of Hunter, a reflective and articulate man who knew the importance of both the message and the medium.

The footage unearthed is nothing short of incredible, both thrilling and gut-wrenching. Rothwell isn’t shy to show that which Hunter and company were fighting against, including the slaughter of whales and seals. In one most harrowing moment, a Greenpeace zodiac careens on the oceans waves just in front of a massive whaling ship, doing what it can to prevent the men onboard from attacking the gentle behemoths under the water. When one sailor grows impatient and mans the harpoon, you wonder if you really know how this story ends.

In another shocking moment, Hunter and a fellow activist stand on literally cracking ice, just a few feet from the bow of a ship that is looking to move forward.

The film though, rests on the dynamics of leadership, and rise and subsequent divisions that started to form when the mission of Greenpeace began to be questioned. Paul Watson, Hunter’s number two more or less, would split off to form the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an aggressive group that may be seen as the Yin to Greenpeace’s pacifist Yang.

At under two hours, Rothwell crams a lot of 16mm footage in, a flurry of a finale is as staggering as it is inspiring. That there is so much to be done today, in 2015, especially with an influential Climate Change Summit on the horizon, the message of Greenpeace rings true today. The viewer should be left discontent; it’s easy to find motivation within the film, but there is much to be done.

How to Change the World is now out in Toronto. For more information, you can visit the website, and watch the trailer below.

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