New Internationalist

Just Do It: a film on climate activism

Issue 443

Sylvia Rowley catches up with the exceptional filmmaker Emily James on the eve of the release of her new film that captures ‘a beautiful moment’ in the story of protest.

If 3 of your friends book their tickets in advance, Just Do It will give you a free ticket to see the film. All you need to do is send the names and email addresses of your friends who’ve booked, with “New Internationalist” in the subject line and details of the screening you’d like to attend, to the Just Do It Outreach Coordinator Molly at screenings@justdoitfilm.com

Absolutely not, no way,’ was the response filmmaker Emily James got when she first asked a group of climate activists whether she could film them planning secret direct actions.

It was 2008, the year when protesters hijacked a coal train on its way to Drax power station, and when members of Plane Stupid made headlines by breaking into London’s Stansted Airport. Climate activism was gaining both momentum and profile.

I could see there was a fascinating culture brewing,’ says the 39-year-old Californian, dressed in jeans and a hoodie at her post-production house in Soho. ‘People were taking accountable actions where, by design, they were going to be arrested at the end of it. It was such a powerful political statement they were making.’

James has long been interested in politics and protest – she boycotted her aunt’s peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches during a grape pickers’ strike when she was only four, and her best-known film to date is an animation about trade politics, starring a singing American peanut. Having met some of the activists socially, James knew she wanted to tell their story, but there was a problem: people planning to break the law are not usually very keen to be filmed.

It is a tribute to the care she took to gain their trust and to safeguard her footage that James’ film, Just Do It: a tale of modern day outlaws, ever got made. All of her footage was kept at a safe house until it was unlikely it could be used against anyone in court. James also kept no written record of what she filmed and labelled her tapes using codes, making ‘the first month of post-production a complete nightmare,’ she laughs.

The result is a film which gives an unprecedented insight into the lives of a group of (mostly) young climate activists as they become increasingly radicalized. Following six characters over 18 months, it tells a story which is much richer and more emotional than that told by fleeting news footage of hooded youths breaking into airports by night.

I wanted to reposition direct action culturally; to show that there is a human face to these people, and that what they’re doing is a rational response to the situation,’ she says.

At the heart of the film is the idea that doing something – anything – is better than doing nothing. Hence the title – Just Do It. This sentiment comes across powerfully through the film’s characters, who feel they cannot stand back while slow political progress hinders action on climate change. It has also become an increasingly defining feature of James’s own life. She turned down mainstream broadcasters who wanted her to tell the story in a way that she considered too judgmental, and made the film independently, with little money.

It sounds grandiose, but I felt that I had a duty to history and to humanity to tell the story in a way that they [the climate activists] would be proud of,’ she says. ‘Now that Climate Camp is closing its doors, and people’s attention is shifting to the public spending cuts, it really does feel like we’ve captured a beautiful moment in protest history.’

Visit www.just-do-it.org.uk to find a screening near you.

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