Words & Interview
The team behind the explosive eco-thriller How to Blow Up A Pipeline reflect on the nature of activism, living under capitalism and spurring audiences out of inertia.
The daring How to Blow Up a Pipeline ensconces the principles of ethical ecoterrorism as detailed in the 2021 non-fiction book of the same name by Andreas Malm within a Hollywood-style heist thriller, combining a radical political outlook with blood-pumping entertainment value. So who better than the team behind this provocative powder keg – director/producer/writer Daniel Goldhaber, star/producer/writer Ariela Barer, producer/writer Jordan Sjol, and editor Daniel Garber – to discuss the multifarious ins-and-outs of activist cinema, whatever that term might mean.
LWLies: To get everyone on the same page – how would you start to define activist cinema, a term that’s so porous and loaded?
Daniel Goldhaber: Marvel. What Marvel’s doing right now.
Please. We’ve only got so much time here.
Daniel Garber: It’s a huge, nebulous term.
Goldhaber: By and large, cinema is one of the primary drivers of popular culture. Making activist cinema means making cinema with an eye towards pushing the culture in a particular, political direction. Activist cinema is different than ‘being an activist,’ I’d say, but it’s still about using the ways by which cinema manufactures culture to initiate a shift in perception of or conversation around an idea. Maybe you want to introduce unfamiliar modes of storytelling or representation to provoke that dialogue. Sometimes, it might even provoke action, but then you start to get into some fine-lined stuff with the difference between activist cinema and propaganda. I think there’s a spectrum there, but generally, when people talk about activist cinema, they’re talking about everything right up to the point of calling for specific action or overt promotion of specific ideas.
One vector by which we assess activist cinema seems to be less concerned with the content contained within a film than the circumstances of its making, the practices outside the text. Do you see these as holding equal import?
Goldhaber: You can’t really separate the two. The material circumstances that go into production, that is the film, same way you might judge a painting based on knowing about the medium, the artist. Every once in a while, a movie that appears to be invested in activism turns out to have originated in nonactivist places, but it comes down to the saying about how every film is also a documentary of its own making. The intentionality of production ultimately shapes the finished piece in one way or another. Especially because building a film production is such a careful balancing act informed by politics and ethics and morals, that you can’t help representing your own politics as a filmmaking team. There’s an alignment between the two, that’s just the nature of the beast.
If that’s the case, can true or even just effective activist cinema only come through independent channels? Working with larger corporate institutions — that’s usually the source of what activism rails against, no?
Jordan Sjol: Thinking from an institutional perspective, no matter where you are, you’re always going to be caught up in some countervailing force to what we’d think of as the activist goal. So blowing that off and saying it can exist here and can’t exist there, I don’t know. You can find ways to work within plenty of contexts that are perhaps slightly subversive of the institution they’re inside.
Garber: You’ve got plenty of political Hollywood filmmakers from the classical era who worked against and within the studio system. Those forces are always going to exist, and individuals find their own way to push back.
Goldhaber: Taking the use case of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, the purpose behind the movie was to make a work of popular cinema that also disseminates an idea that has been generally taboo to discuss in public, and to do that in a broad way for a broad audience. The activist notion is that if you smash the taboo, something can come of that which might be interesting. If you’re making a movie in the pop cinema vein, you’ve got to engage in the structures that produce and disseminate popular things. Maybe you’ll premiere at a festival sponsored by the Royal Bank of Canada, or some other entity with money in fossil fuel extraction.
Your film in particular espouses some pretty deeply held principles, but operating in the real world, it’s all a matter of degrees and negotiations. Is it just a matter of finding a happy medium between idealism and pragmatism?
Sjol: In this way, I think it’s perfectly parallel to being alive in this moment. You’re always going to be complicit in societal structures you have strong objections to, so you’re always finding your own place on a moral gradient. You just try to live in a way that minimises your reprehensibility.
Buying an apple, using a laptop – these things have an
unavoidable moral valence.
Goldhaber: Well, not unavoidable. It’s just something most of us choose not to avoid.
Unthinkable, for me. I like apples.
Goldhaber: You could avoid all this, but then you wouldn’t be able to participate in the creation and spread of culture. That’s the big thing, for us. To plug into the mass consciousness takes a moral compromise right from the get-go. Another example that comes to me is people criticising Twitter, on Twitter. I see this all the time, and it’s the same thing. By doing this, you’re feeding into and legitimising the platform you’d like to reform, but how else would you engage in the reformation of Twitter?
Do these principles function differently under fiction films versus documentary? Do the logistics of activism change when you’re following someone else’s efforts, as Laura Poitras does with Nan Goldin?
Garber: I have two kind of contradictory answers to that. The first is that I do think there’s a distinction there, in that documentaries do make a claim to a certain relationship to reality that fiction films don’t, and that can be meaningful in how you engage with the world. In making a fiction film, you’re building a temporary village of production, and that’s artificial. Even if you claim to have some relationship to real life, you’ve got a structure around you insulating you from the entropy of everyday life, what’s occurring in the rest of the world. This is unlike a documentary, in which Laura’s out in the field, potentially putting herself in harm’s way.
On the other hand, as an editor of both docs and narrative films, I think there’s some significant overlap. In documentary, you’re still making decisions about how to construct and balance a story, which ultimately is a drastic oversimplification of what’s occurring in the world. That transformation of raw footage into a finished film, that’s a decision to create a work of semi-fiction by omission.
With documentary especially, you get into the question of how visual vocabulary figures into all this. There are so many issue documentaries working from this same cookie-cutter template; does subversive messaging require an accordingly subversive style?
Sjol: Part of why cinema feels like such a potent tool is that it does get to a level of deep subjective experience, the way we sense and perceive the world. We all know how effective cinema can be as propaganda, building a sense of national belonging, because it goes below perception. Style, having a style that considers the impact of image on perception, is one of the many approaches folded into all the theory.
Ariela Barer: What we cared about especially with Pipeline was being unpretentious in communicating our ideas. It’s so easy to isolate people and let these ideas become heady, but a section of your audience – the people who need to engage with this the most – will lose interest if you’re annoying about it. At a certain point, you have to put the ego aside and say, ‘I don’t need to be the smartest person in the room if I want everyone to get in this room with me.’ You want to get your concept out into the world.
Goldhaber: And that notion about pretension cuts both ways. It’s about not making something alienating or overly esoteric for audiences, but also about the opposite tendency, not making something condescending. Audiences resent being treated like babies, plus that contributes to an overall degradation of cinematic language. There was this perception for so long that people were naturally averse to documentary as dry and informational, but then once they were made more widely available by streaming, we saw that wait, no, people can’t get enough of this shit. They respond to good docs with good filmmaking, as long as they give themselves the chance.
About genre, which ties into this: genre is a way to organise stories into categories we’re familiar with, and so when we see stories in these rhythms, there’s a communal understanding. In mainstream film, we perpetually see movies about radicalism that engage with conventional genres in an uncritical way, and that’s taken as a dilution of the activist message. But the thing is, if genre represents a communal base of knowledge, embedding that activist message in such a public point of access is radical.
One great example of this is another film from Laura Poitras, her Edward Snowden movie Citizenfour. The film unabashedly embraces the spy genre, and uses those cultural markers to communicate the message – and in 2014, this was still a difficult message to broadcast – that government surveillance has made spies of all of us. A talking-headtype movie, one without roots in genre, wouldn’t have hit in the same way.
Published 20 Apr 2023
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