TIFF Review: 'This Changes Everything'

This Changes Everything
(Canada/USA, 89 min.)
Dir. Avi Lewis
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.

“I’ve always kind of hated films about climate change,” says Naomi Klein as she introduces the eco-doc This Changes Everything. Klein drolly gives her condolences to the polar bears that often inspire sympathy in fire-and-brimstone climate chance documentaries that primarily deliver their messages through fear. As someone who watched over one hundred environmental documentaries this summer for a film festival, I appreciate Klein’s sentiment. Her rebuttal is even better.

Climate change docs generally perpetuate a conversation of fear, like visual essays on a ticking doomsday clock that’s about to strike if the world doesn’t go green. Alternatively, they’re PowerPoint presentations, like facts, figures, and linear graphs coupled with rising platforms to make an argument. These stories have been done before and, to be honest, they generally aren’t done well. While climate change documentaries continually prompt reactions from audiences, they don’t inspire change. On the other hand, this compelling, invigorating, and cinematically engaging film is exactly what the green movement needs: regardless of whether one usually likes or loathes eco docs, This Changes Everything is essential viewing.

Lewis smartly keeps Klein a peripheral figure in the story, as her persona never overwhelms the film with her celebrity or screen presence. The public intellectual appears mostly as an observer or listener (if she appears at all) and she large acts as the audience’s eye to an awakening story. Klein is mostly present in voiceover, which compellingly conveys the argument in tandem with the subjects on screen. This Changes Everything favours dialogue, rather than didacticism, which alone sets it apart from its contemporaries. 

This Changes Everything, inspired by Klein’s book of the same name but developed as a film concurrently, marks another strong collaboration between Klein and her partner director Avi Lewis. This Changes Everything runs with Klein’s radical thesis that builds upon the concept of master narratives and breaks them down to look at the world anew. The problem isn’t just the way previous eco docs tell stories, Klein says, the problem is the stories they tell. In the capitalist society that produces narratives for consumers, global warming often finds itself framed within a larger story that says the world is a machine that humans can regulate and control to create a more productive society. The natural, organic planet Earth, however, is not a man-made entity of which humans are the masters.

The film follows Klein around the globe as she visits individuals for whom the story of the world as a well-oiled machine doesn’t bring a happy narrative. By looking at key failings in which the story doesn’t pan out, This Changes Everything radically encourages audiences to change the conversation. Change the story, though, and one changes the potential for tangible results.

The film visits individuals like Crystal, an Indigenous woman who lives near the Alberta Tar Sands and sees her tribal land quarantined under government order. Her ordeal is a familiar one as Alberta oil predominates Canadian documentaries now that the Harper government has scarred the face of Canada. (See: Oil Sands Karaoke.) As Klein listens to Crystal’s ordeal and as Lewis’s camera follows them to the site as Crystal tries to check up on territory that she has a right to access, the film encounters gross bureaucratic tangles, condescension from chauvinist workers, and drunken tomfoolery from cash-seeking workers that fuel the demand for cheap oil that devastates the Earth. These scenes also reveal the problem with the prevailing story, which says the Earth is ripe for plucking: Crystal’s heritage follows a narrative that teaches people to respect the land, and the areas cordoned off by Big Oil are nothing but short-term gain.

This Changes Everything takes a pragmatic philosophy with the Tar Sands, though, and recognizes that the global system is too complex and entrenched in cheap ephemeral oil simply to flick the switch. People need a broader, deeper change so that history doesn’t repeat itself. Hence, the story.
Photo courtesy of TIFF.

It’s the same story that Klein sees everywhere, as Crystal’s contaminated and quarantined land mirrors the fate of a goat ranch owned by Mike and Alexis in Montana. Fuel extraction by neighbouring interests disastrously disrupts their plans. Similarly, a village in Greece rallies against a Canadian gold mine, Eldorado, which draws precious metals for foreign interests at the expense of local nature and culture. “Please tell the Canadians to pack up and leave,” says the Greek chorus as This Changes Everything captures a chord of unrest that reverberates both locally and globally.

Rather than simply rely on the emotional immediacy of these scenes to provoke a sentimental response in audiences, This Changes Everything looks not at the problems but at the solutions to make a strong intellectual argument for how such cases could be the answer to saving the planet. Klein connects the evidence from these situations and identifies “tipping points” that inspire change. Mike and Alexis, for example, respond not with pitchforks, but with solar panels, as they invest in alternative energy to defy the fossil fuel companies that annihilated. The film returns to Fort McMurray where and speaks directly to Canadian viewers—potential future members of “sacrifice zones” like the Tar Sands—and challenges them to share the new story.

This Changes Everything situates the tipping points within a larger global movement and argues that the fight for climate change is but one facet of a larger fight happening worldwide. The film harnesses the power and spirit of the Occupy Movement as citizens around the world wake up to the ills of capitalist machinery and say that enough is enough. The fluid editing by Nick Hector skilfully unites the individual stories into a collective one to convey shrewdly the power of a united front.

The film has a good sense of humour, though, as Lewis and Klein show the other side of the argument, albeit from a left angle. “If you want more trees, use more wood,” says a bigwig at the American Heartland conference where the myth of global warming is thoroughly “debunked.” Things are drolly green from the perspective of the Benjamins, and the film barely needs a rebuttal to convey the fallacy of the counterargument. It’s a joke.

“If climate change is taken seriously, it changes everything,” Klein argues succinctly. The juxtapositions between the stories of those profiting from the environment and of those burdening the cost parallels the fight between the one percent and the ninety-nine. This Changes Everything implicitly uses the failings of one ideological movement to bolster another. Work together and find a tangible action plan, the film encourages viewers as it leaves them inspired by the possibilities with the environmental crises. This Changes Everything is both a great film and a rallying cry for change.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

This Changes Everything opens in Ottawa at The Mayfair on Oct. 9.
Please note that there is a special preview on Sunday, Oct. 4 at 6:30 PM with Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein in attendance.

Readers inspired by This Changes Everything may seek more information through The Leap Manifesto and learn how they can help change the story.

Please visit www.tiff.net for more information on this year’s festival.
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