Interviews

The POV Interview: Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein

“This Changes Everything” at TIFF 2015

Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis / photo by Brian St. Denis

Filmmaker Avi Lewis and writer Naomi Klein are partners in life, work and social action. They have been sounding the alarm for years, expertly describing the mechanisms that have led to the perilous world in which we live today. Klein and Lewis have turned our attention to the ways in which corporations and governments have colluded to deprive us of economic means and power (The Shock Doctrine) and to the ways in which workers at the front line have taken some of that power back (The Take).

This Changes Everything, their latest project, goes further. The starting point for both Klein’s book and Lewis’s film is climate change caused especially by extractive industries. The book shows us the implications for the dominant capitalist system, and how both corporations and their lobbyists and front-line indigenous people, farmers and communities are responding. The film takes us to the heart of those stories, and is particularly effective at showing audiences how communities, often led by women, are organising and resisting corporate attacks on their water and air.

Eleven years ago, POV featured Lewis and Klein on the cover for their first film, The Take, and it’s fitting to have them back to celebrate This Changes Everything.

JW: Judy Wolfe | MG: Marc Glassman
AL: Avi Lewis | NK: Naomi Klein

Solar water heating installed on rooftops in Solar City, Dezhou, China, from This Changes Everything, dir. Avi Lewis, 2015 / Courtesy Falco Ink.

JW: Did you conceive This Changes Everything as a film or as a book first?

AL: It was conceived as a parallel project. Primarily this is driven by Naomi’s original thesis about the links between economic and environmental crises and justice, but we intended it to be a multiplatform project from the beginning. Katie McKenna has been working with us for four years because the web engagement component of it was baked in from the beginning as well.

NK: With The Shock Doctrine, it was like, “Okay, the book is done, and now we’re talking about a film,” and there’s something that’s terribly flawed about that, where you actually have to simulate discovery and research. I can tell you that, as somebody that takes five years to write books, the last thing I want to do when I’m finished them is do it over again.

AL: There was something elegant about the idea of going on our different journeys from the same starting point, and checking in constantly along the way. We had no idea how complex it would be to address this largest of all subjects, while grappling with the relationship between book and film.

MG: It seems to me that there are gradations about it that are different between the book and the film.

NK: They were never intended to be the same. Books are better at building theses, and films are much better at telling stories and building characters.

AL: It’s not that a book is an inherently unemotional experience, or that a film is an inherently anti-intellectual experience, but the power of documentary film is in its heart. Naomi’s particular style of writing is persuasion through original argument and a vast terrain of examples, so had I had the book to work with, I think that the process would not have been any easier. I think that some of Naomi’s unique gifts as a writer—making connections and marshalling evidence in the service of an argument—are actually ill-suited to the kind of documentary that I love.

MG: So I’m assuming that you must have shot a lot.

AL: Digital media has made it much easier to do so. However, I made a decision early in the process that we needed high production values to complement what was clearly going to be an epic and global book, so we chose to shoot with the RED camera. In rural Andhra Pradesh, we had 500 to 750 gigabytes of data to back up each night in triplicate, so that does make you think more carefully, like in the old film days, in terms of how much you really want to be shooting and how long the camera is rolling. We were more disciplined, which is a blessing when you get to the editing stage.

Protesters march against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington, DC, , from This Changes Everything, dir. Avi Lewis, 2015 / Courtesy Falco Ink.

MG: Did this impair in any way what you [Naomi] were doing? Because you want to be close to people, interviewing them, talking to them, getting to know them…

NK: I would just be off on my own, when you guys were still setting up to do the beauty shots [laughs].

AL: Actually, that part was quite complementary, because the rhythms of interviewing and filmmaking were so different.

NK: When you were doing those shots in Greece down in the gorge, I was interviewing somebody else. You get different types of interviews when you’re just sitting on the ground with no camera on, but it was totally complementary. I’m always frustrated working with film, where it’s, “Can we get this? Can we get that?” so I think we found a way to work together where I wasn’t constantly asking, “Should we be recording?” and I was just able to do my own thing.

MG: Was it basically just one camera?

AL: There were a number of two-camera situations, but they were the exception. In order to film in nine different countries, we had more than 200 shoot days over four years. There were dozens of different locations. So we didn’t have the luxury of spending as much time anywhere as I would have liked to, and I think it would have been a much more observational, experiential documentary had I not decided at the outset to give it the range and the scope. So to go to India, to go to China, and to have a location in Europe, and to travel extensively across North America—we weren’t in one place for a long time. We generally had Mark Ellam, our close collaborator and DP; either Daniel Hewett or Chris Miller, our main sound recordists; and Nico Jolliet, a brilliant young guy who assisted Mark, shot the aerials with his homemade drones and did data backup overnight to boot.

MG: I noticed a change in tone in the book from your previous work, Naomi, and maybe even more so in the film. There’s a kind of hope or an optimism, possibly reflecting on the idea that lots of people are now interested in climate change and green politics. It’s not so much playing the blame game as it is saying, “We can do this together.”

NK: I wouldn’t straight-up say that it’s optimistic. That’s a complicated word, in the sense that to me it sounds like, “Yeah, we know we’re going to win.” If we were going to place bets, we would definitely not bet on our side. But in terms of where we devote our energy, it’s not going to be telling people again and again just how screwed we are. We’ve gone as far down that road as is helpful. We wanted to show people what movements looked like; we wanted this film to be not just one voice laying out an argument that sounded really smart, but actually a symphony of voices in movement and motion that could actually make people feel [like], “Hey, I could do this,” and make them see that there are lots of people out there making a difference around environmental and economic issues.

AL: And that’s true, but most people don’t have intimate access to what’s happening around the world. That’s where we can use both our professional tools and the access that Naomi has, because so many people in movements have found her work useful. It’s really almost a responsibility for us to bring an inside view of social movements to a wider audience.

NK: We’ve felt for a long time that it’s something that films do better than books. People often have criticized me for not writing 10-point-plan books. When we made The Take, the argument was, “We will show you.” We will show you an example of people trying to build a different kind of economy. That is much less didactic—it’s much more what we need, because when you have been immersed in a hegemonic system, as we all have, the real problem is a crisis of imagination, that we actually can’t envision something different.

MG: Do you feel that this is a reflection of what The Shock Doctrine talked about? Because in a way, The Shock Doctrine tells us that people have gotten to a point where they feel completely disempowered, and here you’re suggesting that there are ways that we can actually make a difference.

NK: With The Shock Doctrine, we felt that we just had to explain to people how this tactic works and then people would be able to resist it. When Alfonso Cuarón made the short for The Shock Doctrine, the slogan was “Information is shock resistance—arm yourself.” So [the idea] was, “We’ll tell you that they’re doing this, and then when they try to do it again, we’ll stop them.” And, well, seven years after the 2008 crisis, look at what’s happening in Greece. Just because we know that they’re doing it doesn’t mean we can stop them. Saying “no” isn’t enough; strong rejection isn’t enough. There needs to be an alternate plan for exiting a crisis, something inspiring enough that people will fight for it.

AL: And no one is going to provide that alternative pathway for you. What you see in the film in all of these community struggles is people who have come to the conclusion that they can’t rely on saviours; there’s no point waiting for someone to come and save them; no one is coming to save them. In fact, they are responsible for defending their land and their way of life. They need other people’s help, but this notion that someone is coming to save us has been a real problem.

JW: One of the things I’ve noticed in both the book and the film is this notion that it’s the people on the front line who have to start the change—my water, you can’t take it; my land, you can’t sully it— and then they need to bring in others. You’ve got the beautiful example in Montana of the goat farmers and the indigenous communities. But we have to transform in a very fundamental way how we live, and we can’t just talk about it anymore.

AL: In Sompeta, which is a famous struggle in India that we follow in the film, it was an alliance with middle-class professionals in the town who made links with subsistence farmers and fishers in order to win that struggle. I think that has something to teach, because their victory came about through the determination and the rootedness of those people in the sacrifice zone, as well as the resources and influence and social power of people in the city. It’s a model that should have world. In fact, once you start connecting the dots, it’s hard to stop. This was one of the challenges of making a film based on Naomi’s kind of analysis.

NK: We went through a process of paring down what we were trying to say. We zeroed in on this 400-year-old story we have been telling ourselves that says that the earth is a machine, on the fact that we have an extractivist relationship with nature, as opposed to a regenerative one. And it’s that story that needs to change if we are going to stand a chance. So I like that that is the big idea that we are left with, as opposed to ticking the boxes off the thesis, like here’s the part about privatization, and so on.

It’s so much more than pointing the finger at government and at industry, because it’s the story of the heart of our civilization. And that decision came out of the stories that Avi and Nick Hector and Mary Lampson decided to tell in the production and editing process. It emerged organically from the material, rather than imposing a thesis on the material. The narration of the film changed a lot: there was an earlier cut that was closer to the themes of the book, and it just wasn’t working. To oversimplify so much, you have to make very hard choices. I’d rather have one very big idea that kind of comes out in layers and that people are really able to sit with for a couple of hours, instead of just throwing a whole bunch of ideas at them in a way that is wildly oversimplified.

AL: We talked a lot about Western linear storytelling and the classic heroic narrative, versus the spiral storytelling of indigenous cultures, and I think that this actually is a very deep cinema question, because if you’re prepared to make what gets ghettoized as an experimental film and that abandons some of the classical experiences—building characters and narrative arc—then you can try to do something like spiral storytelling. But we are actually programmed in the Western narrative arc. So the real challenge is, how do you undermine the cultural assumptions and the dominance-based traditions using the tools created by our Western worldview?

What you see is a compromise that we’ve brokered with the material, where we do have characters—we have victories, we have defeats, we have some sort of a tour guide. We have lots of concessions to Western storytelling, but we do not have a single heroic narrative, with a number of obstacles placed in the way and a final result.

NK: Or an all-knowing narrator saying, “This is what everybody needs.” The true thing is that this is genuinely more reflective of the research process than the book, in the sense that, if you have a single-authored book, no matter how many people you quote, it’s still you. And the truth is that I learn from others—my ideas are not sole-authored. It’s not just about storytelling; it’s also about respecting that these are ideas that are collectively owned.

Oil refinery near Ft. McMurray, Alberta, from This Changes Everything, dir. Avi Lewis, 2015 / Courtesy Falco Ink.

MG: I liked the notion of home, especially in the first section with Fort McMurray. It was funny, because I had never connected those dots. Contrasting the transient workers in the oil fields with First Nations people who are bound to the land in Alberta was really powerful.

AL: It is part of the perversity of a petro-economy, which Canada now is, that people go to work where the resource is, and they’re conflicted about what they’re doing there. They’re working in very extreme situations. I know from my time up there that there’s a huge number of people, both in the province generally, as we saw last election, and in the industry, who are really nervous about the way the tar sands have been handled.

MG: You have a small sequence where the Heartland Institute offers its deriding take on climate change. There are great villains there, like Marc Morano and Fred Singer, and I thought, “At last I can boo somebody.” But you don’t play the villain card. Why not?

AL: Why would we? I mean, if you’re actually talking about identifying the systems and the internalized dominance-based worldview and narrative that we carry with us as part of our Western legacy, then it’s too easy to project it onto some bad guy in a suit. That may be a trap. Not to say that there aren’t bad guys, and more often than not they do wear suits, but that’s the kind of easy level of outrage.

NK: I think some people may be disappointed that it’s not about the Koch brothers. It’s not that we’re saying that there aren’t structural issues—the influence of money and politics is there—but I think we just felt that there was a lot out there on those themes and we wanted to add another dimension.

One thing that I’m happy about with the film is that the expert talking head basically isn’t there, and there’s no distinction between the people who things are happening to and the people who actually know something about the system. I think that there’s something in the analysis that is earned by hard experience. That’s a common theme, and it’s something that we really noticed in the field. We also really noticed that a lot of the people who were playing that role were younger women—women in their thirties, young mothers like the women in Greece.

AL: This goes to the heart of documentary. Too many films feature almost all men, and there are a lot of complex reasons for that, and a lot of blindness is required on a lot of levels for films to get made like that. If you honour the documentary imperative to go to the place and find out what is happening, then you find that women are leading in all of the crucial struggles of our time. I feel like that’s more reflective of reality than sitting in an office in Toronto, putting things on a whiteboard and deciding what the ideas are. Just go and find out what people are really doing, and you’re going to have more women in primary positions in the film.

Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York, 2012, from This Changes Everything, dir. Avi Lewis, 2015 / Courtesy Falco Ink.

MG: One thing that I noticed was that First Nations peoples in the film, and certainly in Montana, are agrarian or rural. Are we in some ways looking at this as an opposition between urban and—

AL: Can I confess something? This is something that Naomi was very attuned to throughout the entire filmmaking process. I think I failed to include the truly urban environment as a central location of drama in the film. So it’s not like we don’t talk about it—there’s a section in Germany, and what’s going on there is not a rural thing; there are places in India where the confrontation is playing out in cities—but to have a dramatic storyline in an urban environment was something that Naomi was saying from the very beginning that we needed, otherwise it would feel like these struggles are all land-based, and they’re not. I ended up making decisions about where to shoot, and what kind of struggles would be dramatic and illustrate the ideas, and didn’t end up finding one in a city within the time that I had and with the resources that I had.

So that’s the answer to the question of why we focus on land-based struggles—I think that the dynamic, particularly around our relationship to nature, is easier to see there. The other thing you’re talking about is the strong indigenous points of view in the film. Did we intentionally put some First Nations struggles in real focus, give them time, give them space to breathe, put them up front? Yes, absolutely. There’s no question that indigenous leadership is playing a key role around the biggest question in our country—the exploitation of the tar sands—and that indigenous worldviews about our responsibilities to the land and future generations help to clarify so much about how we can respond to a situation like that.

MG: But it is, after all, ultimately about climate change, so if we are going to make a paradigm shift, does it not require a philosophical rethinking on the part of urban people such as ourselves?

NK: This is why we feel that climate change is not an issue; it’s a message. It is a symptom of a broader crisis that is bringing a whole bunch of other crises to a head. But because the film is ultimately about a clash of worldviews and the need for a shift in worldview, what I say in the book is that we are really lucky that there are people in this world who have protected other ways of seeing the world, in the face of this steamroller of globalization.

AL: And to be super clear, we are not in any way saying that our choice would be that everybody go back to the land, and go and live in harmony with nature in a rural environment.

NK: But this is why I keep on bringing this up: what do these ideas look like in the city? And we have some ideas [about that]. I would say that the people doing urban agriculture and bringing decentralized solar to poor neighbourhoods and turning urban waste into energy—that’s all happening in cities, and I think that we could have told more of those nature-based urban stories. It’s not like we are apart from nature in the cities, we are just in more denial [there], and we find out just how dependent we are as soon as there’s a blackout or any kind of major disaster. In many ways it’s most urgent for those of us who live in cities to figure out how nature works and what our relationship to it is going to be.

AL: And you know, some of the political work that we’re doing, outside of the film and book frame, is about trying to help organize a real political constituency in Canada, fighting for a just transition to a fully renewable energy system and for a whole other way of running our economy. The transition that we need can be sparked by an energy shift, the way they’ve done in Germany, but it goes much deeper than that because we’re actually talking about redistribution of wealth and resources in society and paying our debts as a society to people who are not served by the current economic arrangements.

NK: And we do really believe that political documentaries are first and foremost about starting conversations rather than ending them. I consider it very precious when hundreds of people get in a room to talk about climate change.

AL: Making a documentary film is a continuous process of letting go of things that you love and care about. I think in this case, what’s wonderful about having a companion project is that if people are interested in all the things that they wished were in the film, they can go look in the book and see if they’re there.

MG: Have both of you ever felt overwhelmed by all this?

AL: That doesn’t happen to us more than a dozen times per day.

NK: It’s a cycle for everybody.

AL: There might be a slight difference in the way Naomi and I approach this—I am not an inspirational quote person, but during this project I did actually put [one] over my desk, by the great farmer poet Wendell Berry, who said, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

TIFF 2015 Screenings

Sunday, September 13 (World Premiere)
Ryerson Theatre, 2:45 PM

Wednesday, September 16
The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, 2:00 PM

Friday, September 18
TIFF Bell Lightbox, 11:45 AM