Award-winning filmmaker Emily James's funny, informative and inspirational documentary Just Do It goes behind the scenes of climate activism in Britain to show a side of the issue largely missing from mainstream media. Initially released in cinemas, the film is now available to download/stream, or as a free Creative Commons version, at the Just Do It website.
Emily, you question the balance of mainstream media reporting on this subject in the film. Are you the balance?
"Yeah, in a way. This question comes up a lot: 'Emily James, where has your objectivity gone?' to which I respond, 'What objectivity?' I'm being flippant, but people are concerned. Is it balanced? Is it objective? But I think if you look at the way news reports about these subject matters, what passes for objectivity is so grossly unbalanced that the whole question is moot after a while. So it is the case that I'm largely speaking on their side and it's a sympathetic portrait, but I do think we're trying to round out the story in the public domain, as opposed to being bombastically propagandistic."
Is total objectivity ever possible?
"Objectivity is quite an elusive thing and anybody that tells you they're being completely objective is either lying or being self-delusional. You can aim for it, but filmmaking is inherently subjective."
Who is the film aimed at?
"Really people who are where I was when I came to this film. I had made quite a few films around climate change and I had gotten myself to a point where I was actually quite despondent about how bad the situation was and how little I could do to effect change on it, and I had become quite nihilistic and given up. Then I met these people who knew how bad it was and they were still managing to pull together to take action. I was inspired by that and felt more people needed to see that attitude and that response, because otherwise we really were going to go to Hell in a handbag."
How did you get access to this world?
"People's primary concern was security and whether the footage could ever be used against them or would end up in court. So I worked quite a lot with a legal firm that works a lot with activists to figure out what the real risks were, and how I could keep that footage out of the hands of the authorities. So that involved not keeping any written logs of what I was filming; keeping everything at a safe house so it was never at my house; labelling the tapes in a cryptic manner. And I just started going to a lot of meetings, talking to a lot of people, allowing people to see what type of films I had made before. They could see I was politically engaged with them and that I had no intention of selling them out."
You filmed them breaking the law.
How do you feel about that aspect?
"On the one hand, generally the laws that they're breaking only exist in order to punish activists. So the crime of aggravated trespass, which is what they normally get charged with, didn't exist until the legal system came up with something to charge them with. And this is part of the reason why I have chosen the subtitle, 'A Tale of Modern Day Outlaws', because I wanted to point at that and say, 'Are these people really criminals?' I don't think what they're doing really is criminal."
You followed campaigners to Copenhagen in 2009 for the UN Climate Change conference. The police were tough, with apparently absolute powers.
"Yeah, they could pick people up and preemptively arrest them. Nobody knew about that because it was a new set of laws. And that was possibly the scariest part of it, that the Danish parliament had empowered the Danish police with this almost carte blanche [power]. They had so much power that they didn't even know how much power they had."
One of the young activists says that Copenhagen radicalised her. Did it have a lasting effect on you?
"I had been to quite a few summit mobilisations before - I'd been to Genoa, for example, shooting a little thing for Channel 4, and to Quebec, back in 2001 - and maybe have a little bit more distance from it. But at the same time it was quite a harrowing experience. I think that I shared that glimmer of hope in the back of your mind that they would maybe turn it around and sign a serious deal. Or at least if that wasn't going to happen, it was still our responsibility to go there and tell them that that's what we wanted. I don't think I was dispassionately connected in that sense."
As you say, though, that hope was only a glimmer.
"You know it's a hope in the dark, but you hope nonetheless. Watching the way that they repressed the activists on the street, it was so different from Genoa. In Genoa it was like southern European, hot-blooded fascism, and in Copenhagen it was like that more Germanic, northern European fascism, which was like cold and calculated and almost with a smile on their face. That was quite upsetting and I suppose a lot of people came back very disheartened and confused. I do remember having quite a few conversations with them, going, 'Don't let this beat you down. Let it make you angry and stand up against it. Because this is the way the world works. If you push against power, power will push back at you, and you need to understand that this is the journey that you're going on.'"