“How to Change the World” charts the earliest days of Greenpeace as a group of Vancouver-based “eco-freaks” improvised their way into starting a global movement. Largely told through 16mm footage from an organizational archive of some 1,500 film cans that this documentary just begins to tap, Jerry Rothwell’s film focuses engagingly on the human dynamics, particularly the role of late leader Bob Hunter. The result will be a natural for educational and nature-oriented broadcast networks.
Hunter was a Vancouver Sun reporter whose intense interest in environmental issues landed him at the crux of an original group that reflected the city’s early Me Decade status as an equal-opportunity mecca for American draft dodgers, fishermen, spiritual seekers and more anarchistic counterculturalists. “Greenpeace” was more a coinage for a banner than anything else at first, as a loose consortium of activists planned a disruption of President Nixon’s planned five-megaton nuclear explosion test on the Alaskan island of Amchitka. Though the test happened in late 1971 anyway, the hippies focused so much negative attention on it that the U.S. canceled all further such activities there.
Flush with that success, the still-informal group was swayed by marine scientist Paul Spong (who had been astonished by his findings in researching orca intelligence) into directing a new campaign against offenders in the poorly policed world of whale hunting. When their crew of 13 finally found some Russian whaling vessels off the Northern California coast (after consulting the I Ching as to whether they should give up the search), they immediately realized these seagoing “slaughterhouses” were flaunting international law by killing undersize and immature whales. The dramatic footage shot on this and subsequent voyages kicked off the whole “Save the Whales” movement.
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While he did not particularly enjoy being a leader, Hunter (who soon quit his journalism career for full-time activism) was nonetheless a natural one, given his mix of vision, eloquence, modesty and mediation skills. The latter quickly became valuable as the group’s profile rose — alongside its rapid proliferation among new chapters around the world — enlarging egos and creating interpersonal strife.
The documentary’s later progress details this gradual process of growth, infighting and disillusionment. Hunter, who returned to high-profile environmental journalism before his cancer death in 2005, found himself caught between others’ conflicting notions of Greenpeace’s mission. Still adversarial today among many reminiscing original participants are his unofficial dueling second-in-commands, Paul Watson (who would spilt to found the still-whaler-bedeviling Sea Shepherd Conservation Society) and Patrick Moore (whose environmental corporate-consulting firm is considered a betrayal of his Greenpeace past by many).
The goldmine of 16mm color footage, whose propagandic value participants were quite cognizant of at the time, is in mint condition, showing the excitement and fun of the movement in its earliest days. (Some nice animation, interspersed throughout, is first introduced to illustrate a chemical trip the subjects took as a recreational digression during their Amchitka campaign.) That cultural flashback aspect is aptly amplified by tracks from the likes of Country Joe and the Fish, Canned Heat, Joni Mitchell and Pink Floyd, which supplement Lesley Barber’s conventional orchestral score. (There’s also a snippet of a song by Brigitte Bardot, whose enthusiastic and glamorous participation in the stop-killing-baby-seals campaign provides a brief note of farcical celebrity mania here.)
Barry Pepper lends an attractive gravity to often poetically descriptive passages read from Hunter’s writings. Assembly is smooth all around.