Interview: Documentary Filmmaker Emily James on Direct Action Climate Change

Sometimes compromise can result in “copping out.”

Award-winning filmmaker Emily James is something of a sensation in the United Kingdom. Originally from Berkeley, California, James moved to Britain to get her professional degrees in film and television at Cambridge University. While her work covers a variety of subjects, some of her most lauded projects focus on the subject of climate change. For example, 2009’s The Age of Stupid, on which she worked as an executive producer, stars Oscar-nominee Pete Postlethwaite as an archivist living in the year 2055. Alone on our devastated planet, he watches old film footage and wonders why we didn’t do something about climate change when we had the chance.

Her latest film, Just Do It: A Tale of Modern-Day Outlaws, covers a year in the life of British direct-action activists — passionate young people who are willing to do just about anything to draw attention to some of the most pressing environmental issues of the day. Through a combination of commitment, respect and crowd-funding, James was granted almost unprecedented access into the planning and executing of some of Britain’s most high-profile protests.

After touring the United Kingdom, James is preparing to bring her crowd-funded, community-edited piece to the United States. Organizations like Greenpeace and Rising Tide have already held screenings, and the film can be watched for free online (to schedule a screening in your town or university, contact Just Do It here). EcoSalon spoke with James about her commitment to the cause and the challenges of producing a controversial film.

Do you think climate change is one of the most pressing issues facing young people today?

It is certainly an issue that could eclipse all other problems. But it’s an issue that can’t be addressed in isolation. I think we have to look at these things holistically. In Just Do It, the characters come to this realization that the reasons for climate change start to go into economics and politics. There’s a moment in the film when the activists have been to Copenhagen. They’ve been heavily repressed in the street, and are incredibly disappointed with the decisions that were made. Sophie, one of the main characters, says that she went to Copenhagen talking about climate change, and she came back talking about capitalism and control. It comes back to money and power. The people with the money and the power have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. It was interesting that we filmed all this pre-Occupy, pre-99% discussions. We’re all saying, “Let’s save the environment!” But the people that are preventing us from doing it, are doing it for economic reasons, not ideological ones.

Who were the people that you filmed?

Most of them were reasonably young. The people that I chose to focus on did maybe six or seven actions that year. They really committed themselves at that point in their life. That’s a self-selecting thing; once you have children, people tend to shift gears. Sophie is in her 30s and was born and raised in east London. She supports herself as a waitress, but is also a fine artist and activist. Marina is amazing. She used to be a journalist, then she was a homemaker. She got involved in local politics in Brighton, on the south coast of England, and led a campaign to stop an incinerator from being built near them. She lost the vote and chained herself to the bench in the council building. She hadn’t really participated in that kind of thing before, but felt so empowered that she felt it was the way she wanted to participate.

The movie was funded entirely through donations, correct?

Not entirely, no—it was a combination of donations and foundation grant support. I’ve been working for broadcast television for a long time on commission. I thought this would go a similar route. No one had ever convinced direct action activists to be filmed in the process. It was quite a coup to get people to agree to participate. When I took it to broadcasters, I was surprised by their cynicism and their desire to do a very tabloid version of the story. I felt like I couldn’t keep the promises that I made to the people who were participating, if I did it the way the broadcasters insisted. I couldn’t start crowd-funding [while filming]. I had to keep quiet until I’d finished filming. I’d done a lot of prep work with lawyers to help me figure out how to keep people safe, and there wasn’t much case law to say whether authorities could get materials off me or not. We were able to start crowd-funding in 2010, when we finished filming actions.

Emily James with her equipment.

You were following people with criminal records, watching as they planned and committed technically criminal acts. How were you able to avoid legal liability?

I had an extensive amount of input from two different legal firms. What I worked out was that if the authorities were going to get a subpoena, they’d have to name the footage specifically, and they had to be able to tie it to a case they were working on. The lawyers suggested that I keep no written records. A written record would make it really easy for them to say, “We want that one, that one and that one.” Also, don’t label any [tape] in a way that’s meaningful. That added a little bit of extra fun in the cutting room. If I were to be arrested while filming an action—and it was reasonably likely that I’d be arrested—it would be easy to get a warrant to confiscate material. I kept everything in a safe house, the whereabouts of which were known only to me and to the person whose house it was.  I made it clear to the activists that I would not tell the authorities where the house was, and I was prepared to be held in contempt of court. It became clear with that promise that I was prepared to put my neck first on the line. The other point where the authorities could get my materials was while I was filming an action. I used an extensive system of tape runners. If I was filming that evening, I’d send a tape runner to a drop box, start filming another thing, and run off another tape. I never carried anything in the camera, or on me, that would be incriminating. You had to be very, very cautious.

No one will argue that we need to do something about climate change. But how effective do you actually think direct action protesting is?

These actions don’t work in isolation. They’re part of an ecology of people pushing for change. You need to have more established campaign groups inside talking, as well as the people outside agitating on the streets. Those two work symbiotically. One of the things that’s really strong about groups like Climate Camp is that they’re the people who are reminding us, not of what we can get, but of what we need to get. They haven’t begun the process of compromise: “This is where I’m going to draw the line.” It’s a really hard line. We need to do this.