‘Can we shut down the system?’: The incendiary thriller about combating climate change

By Garry Maddox

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Climate activists have been making regular headlines by blocking roads and railway lines, protesting at sporting events and targeting famous artworks in major galleries.

Sometimes their campaigns are more personal. Just this month, there have been protests outside homes owned by an oil and gas company executive in Perth and British prime minister Rishi Sunak in North Yorkshire.

An edgy, gripping thriller: Forrest Goodluck in How to Blow Up a Pipeline.Credit: Madman

But so little has been achieved that July was the hottest month in recorded history and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that “the era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived”.

American director Daniel Goldhaber’s film How to Blow Up a Pipeline could hardly be more topical. It follows eight young activists who, believing peaceful protests are no longer enough given the urgency of the climate crisis, decide to disrupt the oil trade by blowing up a Texas pipeline.

It’s an edgy, gripping thriller that plays like a heist movie – a kind of Warming Oceans 11 – as their audacious plan unfolds over 56 hours in the near future of December this year, with flashbacks that show the activists’ motivations.

Among these Gen Z idealists/eco terrorists is a Native American man (Forrest Goodluck) who has been radicalised by threats to his tribal land; a Latina (co-scriptwriter Ariela Barer) who is mourning the sudden death of her mother in a heatwave; and a working-class white man (Jake Weary) who is angry the pipeline has been built on his property.

With a roving camera and enough setbacks and plot twists to keep things tense, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is an incendiary contribution to a body of movies about the threat from climate change that dates back to at least Soylent Green 50 years ago.

Other notable examples include The Day After Tomorrow (2004), An Inconvenient Truth (2006), The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008), Snowpiercer (2013) and, more recently, Don’t Look Up (2021).

They might have created more awareness of the issue but, even with tens of millions watching Don’t Look Up on Netflix, the shift to renewable energy is still widely seen as too slow and each extreme weather event – heatwaves, storms, floods, droughts and bushfires – is another wake-up call.

Ariela Barer, who co-wrote the script, plays a Latina who is mourning the sudden death of her mother in a heatwave in How to Blow Up a Pipeline.Credit: Madman

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is based on a 2021 non-fiction book with the same title by radical Swedish academic Andreas Malm, who provocatively argued that the existential threat of climate change meant there was not only a justification for destroying fossil fuel infrastructure, there was a moral obligation.

Goldhaber, whose parents are climate scientists, read it while feeling “a pandemic sense of powerlessness” and immediately saw the potential for a movie.

“Sometimes the hardest part of making a movie is figuring out what you’re trying to even say in the first place,” he says via Zoom from New York, firetruck ominously racing past in the background. “What was such a great opportunity about this project was somebody kind of handed us what we were trying to say then we just had to figure out the story to say it with.

“Ultimately, that [story] was about exploring what kind of escalation of tactics will be necessary and justifiable to fight climate change.”

The delicate operation of making a bomb in How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Credit: Madman

To write the script, Goldhaber and co-writers Jordan Sjol and Barer spoke to a counterterrorism expert about how to build a bomb that could destroy a stretch of a steel pipeline, engineers who advised how to do it without causing an ecological disaster and activists – some of whom had been jailed – about organising protests and the emotional impact of extremist action.

They created a fictional story with characters who are “a mosaic of the American climate movement” with different points of view on the ethics of their mission.

Working at a speed they felt matched the urgency of the topic, the filmmakers were ready to shoot in just seven months. Despite the controversial content, Goldhaber had no trouble finding sympathetic financiers.

“It’s funny,” he says. “In many ways it was the easiest project I’ve ever made and certainly the fastest I’ve ever put together, and I think that’s because it was the most self-selecting.

“Obviously, there were people who were not interested in the movie. There were calls that we simply did not get returned. But there were people who were passionate about it and supported it almost instantly.”

Goldhaber, previously best known for the 2018 horror film Cam that is set in the world of webcam pornography, believes Hollywood is much too fearful about making anything that could alienate viewers.

“That way lies failure,” he says. “Speaking about something that continues to be important and doing it in a way that’s entertaining and accessible, that’s what for me great art is all about, especially great film and great entertainment.”

Gen Z idealists or eco-terrorists? The action takes place over 56 hours in How to Blow Up a Pipeline.Credit: Madman

But he still shot the movie in New Mexico, North Dakota and Los Angeles under a working title, Wild West.

“Every movie operates under a working title,” Goldhaber says. “We didn’t go around putting ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’ on our signs for parking. But other than that, I never wanted to misrepresent what the movie was because I think that way always lies trouble.”

The movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to reviews that recognised the importance of the topic.

“Despite its daring premise and provocative title, the film won’t teach you the mechanics of making or detonating a bomb,” The Hollywood Reporter said. “It functions more as a plea to the Global North – the wealthiest countries in the world and those currently shielded from the worst of climate disaster – to pay attention.”

Variety noted that the movie was about a divisive topic and that climate deniers would likely decry it “as a recruitment poster for aspiring saboteurs”.

“Despite its daring premise and provocative title, the film won’t teach you the mechanics of making or detonating a bomb,” The Hollywood Reporter said.Credit: Madman

While Goldhaber says he always knew there would be a backlash against the movie from the political right, he is candid about other criticisms.

“There’s certainly been our fair share of pushback from the left and from people who think the movie is overly reductive or overly simplistic or who feel that it needs to be less entertaining, less genre or that the practices described in the movie wouldn’t actually be successful,” he says. “All of these things are productive conversations. And many of them are conversations that the movie explicitly acknowledges.”

So how much did Goldhaber want to make a provocative film?

“I wouldn’t say it was ever really about making a provocative movie,” he says. “It was about making a movie that accurately addressed the fundamental issue of what kind of tactics are justified and necessary to fight climate change.”

Having worked on a documentary about climate change, as assistant editor on the Oscar-nominated Chasing Ice (2012), Goldhaber says he knows that movies on the topic often carry the emotional message, “Hey, the world as we know it is going to end and you’re probably going to die young”.

“Let’s say you believe this argument and you say, ‘My god, this is the worst news I’ve ever heard. What can I possibly do?’” he says. “People come back and say ‘buy better lightbulbs, don’t forget to vote and maybe get an electric car’. I think we all know that at some level that is fraudulent. This won’t actually address the scope of the problem.

“But every time we try to push the bounds and say, ‘Can we get any more aggressive? Can we shut down the system? Can we start to attack the things that are killing us?’, the mainstream environmental movement says absolutely not.”

Goldhaber believes so much inaction on climate change comes from a “manufactured powerlessness that business and industry have caused”.

“I’ve seen first-hand how these levers operate inside the climate movement, where people are dependent on corporate money and donor money and don’t want to alienate people and don’t want to hurt their careers, then they gradually make more [compromises] and don’t address the scope of the problem.”

Despite these radical ideas, Goldhaber thinks How to Blow Up a Pipeline offers a sense of hope by encouraging different ways of thinking about combatting climate change. But, in Europe, there is already a backlash against a wave of more confrontational climate protests in the past year.

Reuters reports that German authorities are investigating an activist group called The Last Generation for closing a valve on the Transalpine oil pipeline in Bavaria and protesting at a refinery in Brandenburg. They have intercepted phone calls of the group’s leaders, raided homes, shut down their website to stop fundraising, and are considering classifying it as a criminal organisation.

France has passed new surveillance and detention laws after protests that included activists chopping power connections with bolt cutters and smashing installations with hammers at a cement factory. In March, a protest aimed at disabling irrigation reservoirs for large farms resulted in clashes between an estimated 6000 activists and 3000 riot police, leaving hundreds injured.

And in Britain, where roadblocks on motorways have caused traffic chaos and Just Stop Oil protesters have disrupted Wimbledon, the Ashes and other sporting events, it is now a criminal offence to lock or glue yourself to property to cause disruption.

So – the big question – would Goldhaber like to see more acts of sabotage on oil industry infrastructure?

“I’d like to see significant systemic reform [to] move away from extractive capitalism,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “At a certain point I wonder if any means are justifiable to do that, or what means are justifiable?

“And I think the exploration of a time-worn tactic of sabotaging property destruction merits serious consideration.”

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival, then opens in cinemas on August 17.

Email Garry Maddox at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @gmaddox.

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