In Review: Disruption

Documentary film about upcoming People’s Climate March hits all the right notes

In case you missed it (and I’m really hoping you haven’t), environmental, labor and social justice groups are organizing what they promise will be the biggest climate march in history on September 21. Some 100,000 people are expected for a rally in Manhattan on the eve of a major climate summit at the United Nations, with similar marches planned for London, Rio de Janeiro, Melbourne, and Delhi. The groups behind the People’s Climate March are running ad campaigns in the New York and London subways, plastering cities with leaflets and posters, and pounding the pavement as they make a final push for a big turnout. On Sunday night, organizers added a new weapon to their public outreach arsenal: A slick documentary film, Disruption, about the climate crisis and the citizen effort to push political leaders to finally, belatedly address the threat of an out-of-whack atmosphere.

movie poster

I’ve never seen anything quite like Disruption. Of course, there have been plenty of climate change documentaries, Inconvenient Truth and Chasing Ice being standouts. Documentary films have helped spark movements (for example, Josh Fox’s Gasland, about fracking) or bolster existing ones (see Food, Inc., Robert Kenner’s Big Ag takedown). But Disruption seems to belong to a unique genre: A documentary produced with the single goal of mobilizing for a political march. It’s like an infomercial for a rally. Perhaps this has done before and I just missed it. In any case, Disruption would seem to be in a league of its own – because, even though it’s propaganda of a sort, the film is just so bloody good.

Filmmakers Kelly Nyks and Jared P. Scott have succeeded in creating a film that at once supplies an easy-to-understand rundown of the science of global warming; lays out the history of international leaders’ half-hearted attempts to address the crisis; explains the political and psychological reasons for continued inaction; and offers a stirring call-to-arms for people to get off the couch and get into the streets. Disruption is like a unified field theory of climate change politics – delivered in a brisk 52 minutes that seems like far less.

The film is anchored by interviews with some of the progressive movement’s leading luminaries. We hear from climatologist James Hansen, MSNBC host Chris Hayes, author Naomi Klein, CNN Crossfire host and Rebuild the Dream co-founder Van Jones, scientist Heidi Cullen (formerly of The Weather Channel), and author-activist Bill McKibben, who’s done more than just about anyone to educate and agitate for climate action. Plus Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes, veteran organizer Leslie Cagan, and the World Wildlife Fund’s Keya Chaterjee, whose righteous anger at the political establishment’s fecklessness is incandescent.


Disruption - Official Trailer from Watch Disruption on Vimeo.

No doubt you’ve seen many of these folks on screen before. But you’ve never seen them like this. Cinematographer Tad Fettig does an awesome job of staging and lighting the interviews. We get Van Jones looking positively senatorial at the head of a dark wood table in front of a marble fireplace, Naomi Klein holding forth from what looks like the ideal writer’s garret, Leslie Cagan schooling us in the history of social movements from a classroom, and Heidi Cullen explaining the science in an ominously darkened theater. A bearded James Hansen – filmed in what looks to be the basement of some stone barn – comes across as the hipster grandpa you wish you had. Whenever someone veers too close to jargon, snazzy graphics by animator Eve Weinberg break down the information without ever dumbing it down.

(Humble brag: I’m happy to note that just about every prominent talking head in the film has been featured in Earth Island Journal’s Conversation section. See our Q&As with James Hansen, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, Van Jones, and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. Chris Hayes – just waiting for your people to call.)

The interviewees do an expert job of laying out a dire warning about our planetary predicament and then quickly pivoting to hopeful appeals for citizen activism. Here’s Klein: “What happened in [the 2009 climate summit at] Copenhagen was the realization that no leader was coming to save us. We have to save ourselves.” Later, sound bite machine Jones says, “Keystone XL was supposed to be a wedge – instead, it’s become a base [for grassroots activism].” Wunderkind Hayes provides one of the pithiest explanations I’ve ever heard for fossil fuels’ negative externalities, and then follows that up with a moving celebration of collective action: “There is no replacement, in the digital age, for human bodies standing as one, hearts beating as one, voices raised as one, making a political demand.”

Disruption is, above all, an organizer’s eye view of the climate crisis. The film starts out 100 days before the September 21 protest and, as a tick-tock soundtrack counts down, takes us through 80 days until the march, 58 days until the march, and, finally, 14 days until the march. We go behind the scenes to see organizers’ meetings, build-up rallies, and town hall-style events. In addition to the bold-faced names, there are interviews with community organizers like Jeanette (Jet) Toomer and Eddie Bautista of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, who, during a rally that took place this summer in Times Square, declares: “This is not just about the environment. It’s about the community. It’s about jobs. It’s about justice.”

This is filmmaking as grassroots organizing tool – a sophisticated effort to reach a generation accustomed to getting its news from YouTube. Back in the day (as Leslie Cagan reminds us), political activists organized via phone calls and the postal service. Today they make professional-looking movies, post them on Vimeo, and hit Share.

If you – or your friends and relatives – are just learning about the scope of the climate crisis, Disruption will be instructive. If you’re already plugged into the movement, no doubt you’ll once again be infuriated by how the political establishment is playing kamikaze with the planet. No matter what, I think you’ll be inspired.

So watch the movie. Spread the link far and wide. And get ready for September 21. Because, as this potent film makes clear, disrupting the political status quo on climate will take everything we’ve got.

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We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

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