Towards the top of I Am Greta is a montage featuring the voices of climate crisis deniers, including Donald Trump spewing his “global warming is a hoax” lie. This noise is vividly counterpointed with images of extreme weather and natural disasters in the form of fire, floods, and more wreaking havoc around the world. Enter into this cacophony a petite, pigtailed teenager who takes it upon herself to stage a one-person strike in front of the Swedish parliament with a sign declaring “School Strike for Climate” and leaflets about the impending doomsday scenario Earth faces if urgent measures aren’t taken to reduce carbon emissions.
Arguing that politicians behave “as if we have several Earths,” the determined 15-year-old Greta Thunberg insists: “No one is doing anything — so I must do what I can.”
When an adult passerby asks Thunberg why she isn’t in class she responds: “Why would I need an education if there isn’t a future?” In fact, despite missing much school, Thunberg still manages to graduate near the top of her class, as Swedish filmmaker Nathan Grossman shows in his engrossing documentary, which has won several filmfest prizes, including Zurich Film Festival’s Science Award.
As another adult asks her, “May I sit with you?” I Am Greta shows how the adolescent’s “sit-in” spreads, with her “Fridays for Future” movement catching global fire (so to speak). First in Sweden, then rather breathtakingly around our beleaguered planet, Grossman’s Hulu documentary chronicles Thunberg’s skyrocketing fame, as she rises from being a lonely teenager with Asperger syndrome to a world figure at the forefront of a kind of twenty-first century Children’s Crusade who meets notables such as Pope Francis and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who hosted 2016 episodes of the environmental Years of Living Dangerously nonfiction TV series, retweets a Thunberg posting to his 4.5 million Twitter followers (later in the documentary she meets him). In 2018 Thunberg is invited to speak at the United Nations Climate Change Conference at Poland (COP24), where she addresses 30,000 people and 40 heads of state, and is at one point seated beside UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
Proving that she dislikes “small talk,” Thunberg electrifies listeners, daring to chide officials at Katowice in English (the film is in English and Swedish, with English subtitles): “Since our leaders are acting like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.”
Aware that her words to the UN are undiplomatic the no-nonsense, the casually dressed teen goes on to assert: “I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet. Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money … It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few … We have not come here to beg world leaders to care … We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.”
The notion that a down-to-Earth teenage girl is taking on the grownups captures the imaginations of millions, and we see Thunberg’s message resonate from Brisbane to Belgium to Asia and beyond, inspiring international anti-climate crisis mass rallies. At one demonstration advocating what could, perhaps, be called “pro-planet populism,” a marcher bears a sign that slyly spoofs Trump’s faux rightwing populist slogan, declaring: “Make the World Greta Again.”
Of course, Thunberg’s ascension to worldwide celebrity status amuses and bewilders the adolescent, who muses: “It’s like being in a movie. Lots of paparazzi.” But her high profile also has a dark side, as Thunberg is attacked by climate deniers, such as by a conservative talking head on Fox “News” who callously refers to her as, “The mentally ill Swedish child being exploited by her parents.”
I Am Greta delves into the personal life of its young subject, who loves dogs and horses. Grossman, who previously co-wrote a nonfiction biopic about Swedish crime novelist Stieg Larsson (whose Lisbeth Salander novels include one ironically entitled The Girl Who Played with Fire), has extensive behind-the-scenes access to her. Thunberg’s Asperger’s – a neuro- developmental condition on the autism spectrum – is candidly discussed. At one point, we see Thunberg correcting a reporter, readily admitting that while she does “have” Asperger syndrome, she doesn’t “suffer” from it. Indeed, the film suggests that Thunberg’s frame of mind actually helps her to be “laser-focused” on essential matters such as climate change.
Her longhaired father Svante Thunberg figures prominently in the documentary as well, as he accompanies Thunberg to her far-flung speaking engagements. Since his daughter insists on a minimal carbon footprint, she refuses to fly, which means traveling via boat, rail, and auto (the teen is too young to legally drive). Her mother, Malena Ernman, is glimpsed far less frequently onscreen than Svante is, and Thunberg’s younger sister isn’t seen at all (I suspect to protect her, as Greta has been subjected to so many death threats Svante learns self-defense measures).
This exceedingly well-crafted, absorbing documentary builds up to Thunberg’s invitation to address the UN at its New York headquarters. But her agreement to speak at 2019’s UN Climate Action Summit entails sacrifices: The by then 16-year-old high-school graduate must, for the time being, forego continuing her formal education. In order to reach NY without flying, she must – like a latter day pilgrim for the planet – sail from Plymouth, England to Manhattan and then make the time-consuming voyage back to Europe.
A twenty-first century Ulysses, Thunberg embarks on an oceanic odyssey aboard a specially designed, 60-foot racing yacht emblazoned with the slogans “Climate Action Now!” and “Unite Behind the Science.” Accompanied by the skipper, Svante and that cinematic fly-on-the-wall, Grossman, the frequently seasick Thunberg crosses the Atlantic. When the zero-carbon Malizia II arrives at NYC after a two-week passage, Thunberg receives a jubilant welcome from a throng of New Yorkers, not normally known for their friendliness.
Once there, the outspoken adolescent tells the UN summiteers in no uncertain terms: “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words … People are suffering … dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
Thunberg goes on to participate in massive rallies while in NYC. But missing in action from Grossman’s documentary is her interchange with President Trump at the UN Building where she gave the climate-denier-in-chief what could be described as, “The glare heard ’round the world.” (If looks could kill, The Donald would have been a goner.) The Jane Fonda-led, Thunberg-inspired “Fire Drill Fridays” are likewise not included in the film, although in 97-minutes, you can’t cover everything.
I greatly enjoyed this highly recommended film about an admirable argonaut who voyages across the ocean to find the Golden Fleece of a healthy, safe, sustainable future. It reminds us of why, in Matthew 18:3, Jesus said: “Ye shall be as little children.”
I Am Greta begins streaming on Hulu November 13.
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