Emily James is an award-winning documentary filmmaker working in England. She directed Just Do It: A Tale of Modern Day Outlaws, which chronicles some of that country’s nonviolent civil disobedience activists before and after the critical 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Years ago, London’s Guardian dubbed James “a genius.” More recently, a student at Divest Harvard described her as “really awesome.” Both assessments bear accuracy.
After a bit of persuading, James got granted unprecedented access to participate alongside –– and film potentially incriminating evidence of –– this group of mostly young activists as they planned and executed acts of civil disobedience at big banks, coal plants, airports, and more. She said she found them some of the most altruistic and good-humored people she’d met, their purpose very valid. So a big drive in making the film was to dispel the negative light under which these activists are so often cast, particularly in the commercial press, and to capture the essence of what she felt was a “beautiful moment in the history of civil disobedience.”
James also hoped this might hearten and help inspire viewers to act for justice themselves. Many 350.org, Occupy, and student activists I’ve talked to over the last semester attest that it has.
I had the privilege of Skyping James from Cambridge for an interview recently.
D.J. Buschini: Thanks so much for talking with us. Could you say a little bit about the organizations portrayed in the film, and what they’re up to now?
Emily James: Sure.Well,Climate Camp has kind of dissolved. They did a 2010 camp but not a 2011 camp. Partially why is because they had been going for about five years and felt like there was no longer any traction being had by holding these camps because what had been this really dynamic, volatile kind of movement had started to institutionalize. There was beginning to be…not hierarchical difference, but: the people who put on the camp, and the people who came to the camp. It was beginning to kind of separate into the two. The people who were the ones putting on the camp started getting frustrated that it stopped being a participant kind of thing and started being them throwing a festival for a bunch of people that weren’t as committed as them to come to. And it was hugely taxing on their time and they wanted to move on to doing stuff in different ways and kind of mix up their tactics.
Then out of the ashes of Climate Camp the phoenix that rose was called the Climate Justice Coalition. But it has maybe a third of the core members of Climate Camp, maybe less, and really not much of the wider following of it.
Things move on. It’s a dynamic sort of thing. And that’s kind of the way it’s supposed to be, I think. Because there’s a very fluid membership between those things, and also Climate Rush.
Sadly, the economy tanked and a lot of the people who were doing that kind of work are now doing a lot of work trying to just defend the social welfare state and the kind of education and libraries and everything else. So that’s been rather distracting for a lot of people too.
Post-Copenhagen, the climate change community and I think a lot of the activists that were involved in working in that area, have found it difficult to figure out what the narrative is. With Copenhagen, quite justifiably, everybody went in saying, “This is the last chance to save humanity and we’ve got to get a good deal here or we’re all screwed.” And then we didn’t get a deal, or at least not a real deal. And I think it was really difficult to figure out how you come back from that. You know? You’ve basically said “This is the end of humanity.”
Particularly, the NGO sector (the kind of big campaign organizations) has found it very difficult to figure out what their messaging is that can be effective on climate change after that. And I think the activist community as well was incredibly disheartened by that experience, certainly over here, at least.
DJB: A lot of what you document relates to the major 2011 protests. How did you react when Occupy and the 99%, economic justice narrative got popular?
EJ: I can remember when the Occupy started in London, me and my editor James went down on the first day and we were watching the General Assembly operating by consensus and doing the jazz hands and stuff and we just looked at each other and went, “Did you ever think you’d see hundreds of people learning how to do this in one day and then doing it together?”
We never believed that it would mushroom into that spontaneous kind of growth. Before with the time I’d spent with people like Just Do It, I’d been around a variety of non-hierarchical groups for years; ten years before I’d been filming in Italy at [the G8 summit at] Genoa working with Indymedia groups there and stuff. But I’d only seen that whole kind of manner of non-hierarchical working done by smallish groups of activists that had done it year-in and year-out. And they were all the “anarchist-way-down-the-hood” spectrum and all this kind of stuff. But to see this huge cross-section of people kind of coming and embracing it and using it…was amazing.
DJB: What about the humor in the film? It seems like that’s something that’s been lacking in activism here in the U.S. But it’s always so good at bringing people together.
EJ: That’s another point. If you watch any of my other films: I like using humor in films. So I was probably attracted to the characters who were more humorous and stuff. There’s certainly plenty of stick-in-the-mud kind of, you know… these arguments where somebody would come up with a great pun to put on the banner and then somebody would be like “[silly voice] Well what if we are misinterpreted for meaning that for real?” You know? And then [the others]’d be like “Ah, for fuck’s sake!”
EJ: You get these tensions definitely.You know, I was telling you before about the Climate Justice Collective. A number of people I know have made jokes about how all the people who would insist on clarity over humor in the banners got together and started the Climate Justice Collective. Which is sort of, even in its name, not nearly as fun or exciting as climate camp was. So there’s tension in that as well.
DJB: The level of activism that is portrayed in the film, chaining yourselves and stuff –– how do you think it’s perceived by different segments of the general public? And how is it portrayed by the more mainstream media? Here whenever that happens, it’s often like, “Oh they’re these crazy, hippie environmentalists.” Is that kind of similar in the UK?
EJ: Yeah, totally. Which is essentially part of why I made the film. Because in the news they’re either dismissed as kind of unwashed dirty hippies who kind of don’t know any better, or ‘don’t really know anything about anything’ kind of thing, or just ‘radical extremists who really don’t need to be listened to in any particular way.’
When I started to meet them, I felt like, “Well, this is not really the case.” So I was asked by Plane Stupid to film them shutting down Stansted Airport in 2008, and it was just amazing to me to see the people involved in that just did not fit the stereotypes at all for how they were portrayed.
They asked me to film them going through the fences and them occupying the runway, but I wasn’t allowed to film anything other than that. So what I was able to capture was this night-vision, you know, kind of faceless people wearing jackets running onto a runway, and it was very easy for the media to run with that, and kind of make them a bunch of extremists and dehumanize them. That was part of my motivation for wanting to make the film.
I went back to them and was like, “Well look, you know, that footage was on the air for 24 hours, but then the agenda moved on, and then the story moved on, and it was gone.
“If you let me make a film that shows who you are, and your humanity, and what you’re doing, and sees you struggling to achieve the things that you want to achieve, then that will reach people in a fundamentally different way.”
It took me about nine months after that to convince them, but…
EJ: [laughter] They got absolutely roasted. The general public did not appreciate that action when they shut down the airport. You know? All the talk radio call-ins were like, “How dare they impose their will on other people; I’ve missed by holiday; I’ve missed my vacation.” The media latched onto a story that a baby had needed to be med-evac’d out and it had been stopped because of the occupation of the runway. Which was complete bullshit from no…you know, there wasn’t even any kernel of truth to it.
The tabloids really went after them. Lilly, who’s one of the main people in the film, was on the media phone and her name was associated with that action and she had people going in her Facebook account and leaving horrible messages and just all kinds of… All of them have now changed their names on Facebook so you can’t find them, after that happened to her.
But then this goes back to what I was saying about how these sorts of organizations are not institutions, you know? And that’s there for a reason.
So like, Plane Stupid said, “What we want to do is: get this issue on people’s minds and connect this with climate.” You know? Connecting aviation with climate change was their only goal. So it didn’t matter if people hated them, as long as they were thinking about the thing that they wanted them to be thinking about.
And they didn’t have to worry about whether their donors would make enough donations to pay for next year’s salaries in their now-institutionalized environmental organization.
They just had to worry about: “Are we getting our fucking point across?”
EJ: And you know, they did it with puns on their banners, and they tried to like, do it in a way that was accessible, and they tried to work with the media to kind of get the best coverage that they could. But most importantly, they had their point that they wanted to make.
And they did that really effectively. I’ve spoken to a lot of journalists and politicians that work in this area and they all say that, “This country has about the highest level of awareness about aviation and climate change of any country in the world, and everybody points to Plane Stupid and says that it’s thanks to them that that’s the case. So that’s a pretty phenomenal success story, even though as far as the general public was ever concerned, they were only ever radical, crazy, hippy, weird, “whatever.” You know? And not liked.
DJB: Just Do It inspires many viewers to really take the initiative and do what they see is right, with civil disobedience and other creative actions, to help stimulate the change we urgently need. But you also note how there are these dilemmas posed by institutions. Are there any lessons you’ve drawn from observing and participating with the UK activists about how to navigate those obstacles?
EJ: Yeah, I think what I’m saying about institutions is a lot of these guys will do things like make up an organization for one action. They’ll go, “Ok us 20 people are getting together and we’re doing this action on this day for this thing.” And, you know, they can’t get full buy-in from Plane Stupid to do it in their name. Or they can’t get full buy-in from somebody else to do it in their name, so they’ll just go, “Hey! What’s the banner that we’re gonna do this under? Ok, we’re gonna do it under this,” and they’ll make a name. And they might use that again six months later for something else. You know, to treat these things as a little bit more disposable and not kind of let them become rigid and reified.
Like I say, even now with Plane Stupid, you can’t just go and do an action and say it’s a Plane Stupid action. You have to get Plane Stupid’s agreement to that. So now you have a decision-making tree about who it is that’s allowed to say “Plane Stupid.” You know? And it’s at that point where that becomes an issue that a lot of these sorts of activists just kind of go “Right, I’m moving on. I’m moving on to something else that’s fleet-of-foot and can do what I want it to do, and is for the purpose.
It’s interesting. Some of these guys may have some relationship with a group like Greenpeace or something like that, because Greenpeace supports a lot of these guys through letting them use their facilities or doing stuff like that.
But they’re also pretty cunning about organizations like Greenpeace. I’ve known some people in Greenpeace who have been told, “No, you cannot do that because you’re endangering the further existence of Greenpeace,” and they’re going, “Ok so you’re saying I can’t save the planet because I’m endangering the further existence of Greenpeace; where have we gone wrong here?”
So, if you’re a student in a university or college, you’re not going to remove yourself from that institution. You might as well utilize the aspects of that intuition that are useful to you and use whatever leverage you can get and work within that. But also just be realistic about what an institution is, and what they’re like, and how they function, and what their core purposes are and how, generally, their core purpose is to exist again the next year.
DJB: Do you have any projects you’re working on now?
EJ: I’ve got a project that I’m developing now about open-source and open source culture – coding and culture, but it’s hard to get it off the ground. I’m at that difficult stage where I’m trying to make the little wings fly and they haven’t quite taken off yet.
On January 7, eight New England students did a sit-in at the Westborough, MA office of TransCanada. They’ve cited Just Do It as inspiration. If you’d like to chip in to aid their legal fees, please Click here.
To book a community screening of Just Do It, see here http://justdoitfilm.com/bookscreening