★ ★ ★
Greta Thunberg is, to put it mildly, what we might describe in the U.K. as a ‘Marmite figure’.
To others, polarising would be the better word. Ever since Thunberg sat down in the middle of her hometown of Stockholm with a painted sign saying (in Swedish) ‘School Strike for Climate’, removing herself from education to raise awareness about climate change and global inaction, she has won almost as many detractors as fans. Nathan Grossman’s film, you suspect, wants you to believe more of the world is with Greta and her cause than the opposite. I Am Greta is not exactly a hagiography but it is sympathetic, on multiple fronts; a documentary that follows the 15-year old girl with Asperger’s Syndrome on a remarkable journey over less than three years, but which oddly feels longer.
The issue with I Am Greta, no matter how openly it presents its protagonist, is that it won’t do precisely what Thunberg is devoting her life to: changing minds.
We are surely now at the stage where climate change denial is to be laughed at, right? Propagated it might still be by autocrats, dictators or barely democratic populists, denying the world is literally on fire is becoming harder and harder to dispute.
I Am Greta suggests Thunberg has emerged as a natural scion for a groundswell movement which has existed for decades without much in the way of traction.
Power Shift Network have been around for years. Extinction Rebellion’s antics are well documented. Track back and you’ll find climate change protestors on the streets of rich Western countries as far back as the Nixon administration. Greta’s cause has been building steam ever since the significant climate change warnings were first voiced in the 1970’s by scientists who were swiftly discredited by the all-encompassing fossil fuel industry, entrenched and about to be buoyed by the neoliberal swing toward deregulation and free trade ushered in following economic depression during that same decade. The populous, now growing used to post-WW2 consumption, were not ready to listen to all the ways we would have to roll back on prosperity for the sake of our descendants.
Honestly, this remains a bitter pill for many to swallow even in the Covid-19 pandemic world I Am Greta has been released in. It’s coincidental but perhaps favourable to Grossman’s documentary that the natural disaster of Covid, which might have spread thanks to Chinese negligence but emerged as a consequence of human error and a lack of respect for nature, has exacerbated the need for human awareness of our fragility in the face of global catastrophes that can happen instantly. Greta’s harsh words, presented sans filter directly to the highest echelons of global power, contain more weight as Covid ravages the planet. Climate change is a slow motion version of a pandemic, a steadily unfolding mosaic of rapid destructive devastation we, down to the average citizen, are exacerbating thanks to our carelessness.
Greta blames governments and entrenched systems, however, not common or garden people, her ire saved for the litany of largely old, white men who Grossman makes a point of showing at their most visibly bored by Greta’s words (such as the EU’s Jean-Claude Juncker); indeed during one EU climate summit, as Greta listens to Juncker respond to her impassioned speech with more semi-relevant platitudes, she takes off her translation equipment and stops listening. This is key, as I Am Greta is built on Greta’s frustration in how the older generations are refusing to hear the young. Though the film personalises Greta’s journey, the throng of youth action pulses across Grossman’s film, as Greta collects her ‘groupies’ and is feted at rallies akin to Beatlemania. This is protest breeding global celebrity.
This has created a world of cynicism around Thunberg’s global journey as she spreads her savage message to the leaders of the rich world, in person to the more liberal-minded, centrist European leaders (such as Emmanuel Macron, who we see give her an audience) and via intermediaries for the less approachable (she sees former Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, in Westminster, and former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in California). Grossman gives scant coverage to the detractors, or naysayers, or just plain deniers who consider Greta a tool of the ‘liberal’ media, exploiting the young girl’s Asperger’s for political point scoring. Hawkish Australian politicians denounce school strikes, Jair Bolsonaro calls her a ‘brat’ and Donald Trump only has to say her name at one of his rallies to rile up the crowd (though in fairness if he showed them a cabbage and called it a socialist, they’d boo). I Am Greta is unequivocal here though in presenting Thunberg as a reluctant hero taking on these powerful, old, white, male villains causing the world to spiral into destruction.
That’s not to say she’s wrong. Many would agree, myself included. I Am Greta does not want to have the conversation in detail, though, as to whether they have a point about her exploitation. We see Greta mainly travelling with her father, Svarge, who is presented as a classic Scandinavian liberal; perhaps alternative in his youth but upwardly mobile, but who is a touch weary of Greta’s Asperger linked obsessions and whims. Her mother Malena—accused in the media of being from privilege which allowed Greta the chance to take such a platform that most other young people could ill-afford—makes scant appearances, as Grossman’s film encourages the audience to see Greta’s Asperger’s as a strength.
“I don’t see the world in black and white. I only see climate in black and white” Greta attests, but is this true? Is the fact she can ‘cut through the static’ and speak to power with accusatory language evidence that she is being indulged to some extent? She bemoans how, months into her journey, nothing is changing, but I Am Greta’s only moment of acknowledging the complicated reality behind fundamentally reverting a century of fossil fuel use upon which over 80% of the world is still entirely reliant is comes from Vladimir Putin, no less. Not exactly the person in your liberal tract you want openly pointing out that Greta’s activism is not a black and white, binary ‘let’s all change this tomorrow’ decision.
Whether Greta is being used, or pandered to, is down to us as the audience to decide. For me, the answer is likely in that grey area Greta struggles to see.
She is being promoted by progressive media, and encouraged perhaps into the kind of fierce anger she directs at the UN in New York after a pretty torturous journey across the Atlantic Ocean (as she refuses to go anywhere by air), but frankly we need people saying what Greta is unafraid to say, because no politician is ever going to do it. I Am Greta understands this, even if Greta doesn’t always understand the world around her and how it could be manipulating her. The truth and power of Greta’s message remains undiluted. The main issue here is that Grossman’s film will only confirm biases. If you love what Greta stands for and says, this will galvanise. If you find her as annoying as Piers Morgan claims on a clip from Good Morning Britain, even seeing her life beyond the speeches and the protests, you won’t likely find anything to change your viewpoint.
In that sense, I Am Greta is preaching to the converted. We can only continue to hope that what Greta Thunberg says, and is devoting her life to, might somehow change hearts and minds, especially as we eventually overcome Covid-19. Because time really is running out…
I Am Greta is in U.K. cinemas now.