How can film narrate the climate crisis?

New documentaries featuring David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg are uneasy about their stars' hero status. 

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The world has arguably never been more in need of a hero. Someone to confront the vast existential threats posed by climate change; to unite global populations in the planet’s defence; and to inspire us, despite the magnitude of the crisis, to demand environmental justice ourselves.

In many ways, two such individuals already exist – 17-year-old Greta Thunberg and 94-year-old David Attenborough. At least, that is the implication of two new documentaries, Nathan Grossman’s I Am Greta, and Alastair Fothergill and Jonathan Hughes’s David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, both out this month. Members of very different generations, Thunberg and Attenborough share a single, passionate message: that humanity’s fate now hangs on our total realignment to the natural world.

Thunberg became famous rapidly. In autumn 2018 the teenager sat alone outside the Swedish parliament on the world’s very first “school strike for climate”. A year later, as the film documents in detail, she would lead the largest climate strike in history through New York and tell UN leaders, “How dare you!”

Attenborough’s career, by contrast, has been built over decades, and in A Life on Our Planet we see him confront the very charge that Thunberg has implicitly laid at his (and all our) feet: why didn’t you do more to help? Looking back over his career as a wildlife film-maker and presenter, he charts the story of “how we came to make our greatest mistake”: letting our consumption increase to a point where it threatens the existence of every ecosystem on Earth.

But while both these films focus on an individual life story, they also seem to question the value of the heroic figure itself. At the start of I Am Greta, Thunberg’s smallness is almost overwhelming. We first see her perched on the back of a sailboat among crashing Atlantic waves; then crouched on the ground next to her outsized protest sign, hugging her knees as if to make herself even smaller still. Once so engulfed by concern for the climate that for three years she only talked to her immediate family, her fame comes as much of a surprise to her as anyone.

It is not without its rewards, and by the end of the film it is clear Thunberg has gained not just friends but allies. “You’re a real hero here; it would be nice to get to know you,” a fellow youth-activist tells her.

But fame also brings its own anxieties. Behind-the-scenes footage shows Thunberg’s father struggling to convince her to eat. She talks to a friend about burnout. She is used for photo-ops by some world leaders (France’s Emmanuel Macron), and ridiculed as a “brat” by others (Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro). “I don’t want to have to do all this; it’s too much for me,” she says in one scene.

Hovering above all this is a sense that reverence for exceptional individuals is at but one remove from the long chain of thinking that has justified humanity’s exploitation and dominion over the natural world. Only collective action, not individual heroes, can save the planet, and Thunberg’s strength is instead linked to traits that many might see as vulnerabilities. “Sometimes,” she says, “it feels like those of us who have Asperger’s or autism are the only ones who see clearly through the static.”

Attenborough, to an extent, also rejects heroism’s shine. In A Life on This Planet, the presenter is filmed speaking directly to camera against a black backdrop, almost as if on trial or in confession. The film’s tone is largely one of making reparation for harm done – and is only partially hopeful about our prospects for emerging from the flames.

Both documentaries put forward a powerful alternative vision based in a reverence for other living beings. The celebration of other forms of life, emotion and intelligence is the magic heart of all Attenborough’s work, and this film invests it with an almost redemptive power. After its darkest moment – in scenes looking ahead to a possible future ecocide – a full montage of tigers, bears, deers and frogs emerge in eyeball-to-eyeball glory. “In this world, a species can only thrive when everything around it thrives too,” is among Attenborough’s closing thoughts.

The same message is made in a less explicit but perhaps even more striking way in I Am Greta. Again and again we see her return to visit a small, brown pony at a local stable yard. In these quiet moments, as she nuzzels his neck and strokes his nose, there is an ease of connection that seems almost transcendent.

As thinkers and campaigners now increasingly stress, we must learn to see ourselves as deeply interdependent beings, rather than demarcated individuals. In these two films Thunberg and Attenborough begin to redefine heroism itself, challenging what it means to be the global climate leaders they’ve become. 

“David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet” is available on Netflix; “I Am Greta” is in UK cinemas now

India Bourke is the online editor for the New Statesman's international edition.

This article appears in the 23 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic

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