I Am Greta: How One Teenager Started a Climate Revolution

14 Oct 2020 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

7 mins
I Am Greta Image
I Am Greta Image

In 2018, a 15-year-old activist in Sweden named Greta Thunberg began a sit-down protest outside her country's parliament building in Stockholm. With a national election looming, Greta was frustrated at politicians and elected leaders seemingly ignoring the issue of climate change during the campaign, seeking to kick it into the long grass rather than address the crisis with the urgency it required. She was inspired to take action after watching a film about climate change at school.

Local filmmaker Nathan Grossman heard about Greta's plans through a mutual friend of the family. He went along with his camera to capture footage of the solo protest, not knowing what he might do with it but thinking it may become part of a short film about young activists. Then something remarkable began to happen. Drawn in by her eloquence, others began to join Greta: one person became two, became four, became eight, and before long the protest was making national headlines. Equally important, Thunberg's savvy use of social media brought her message to a huge swathe of young people equally concerned about climate change but unsure what to do about it. As such, Grossman's footage quickly became far more significant than he could have imagined, and his continued documenting of Greta's incredible journey can be seen in new feature documentary I Am Greta.

Protests quickly expanded across the country, into the rest of Scandinavia, and within months across the entire globe. Under the hashtag #FridaysForFuture, climate protests led and organised by young people took place in every continent except Antarctica. They were all inspired to take action by Thunberg, by this point a global icon, living a hectic life taking her message to the most powerful people on earth, from presidents, to A-list movie stars (Arnie was an early fan), and even the Pope. Grossman was there for the entirety of a remarkable year, capturing the public and private Greta Thunberg as she adjusts to sudden fame and becomes increasingly angry at the continuing ignoring of the message of young people like herself by the powerful.

I hope anyone who watches the film can finally understand that we young people aren't school striking just for fun. We are protesting because we don't have a choice.

Greta Thunberg

As well as a clear understanding of the power of social media and protest to get important messages across, Greta also knows how much influence rhetoric can have when it comes to inspiring others and speaking truth to power. The film follows Greta as she travels to numerous high-profile events, such as EU summits, international climate conferences and meetings with the UN Secretary General. Masking any intimidation she may feel, and refusing to have her message diluted, we see her deliver a series of stark, impassioned and no-nonsense speeches to some of the most significant politicians in the world, with an increasingly fascinated media following her every move. However her frustration grows the more prominence she gets, as it becomes increasingly clear that most of the adults she is seeking to engage are only interested in her for PR purposes a point painfully captured by Grossman through footage of politicians idly playing on their phones as Thunberg is speaking to them. Greta herself sums this up succinctly early on when she says in a voiceover: "Adults say one thing and do something completely different, all the time."

The film's final sequences focus on Thunberg's invitation to address the UN Global Assembly in New York, and her remarkable decision to sail across the Atlantic to get there, rather than get on a plane and contribute to carbon emissions. Setting sail from Plymouth, the journey would take two weeks, and once again Grossman was there for the entire voyage capturing footage of the journey itself as well as her arrival in New York where she was greeted with crowds of awe-struck well-wishers, the trip having captured the imaginations of young people around the world.

This trip shows some of the more private side of Greta, as well as going further into some of her mental health struggles as she adjusts to the pressures of her unwanted global celebrity, frustrations at the lack of action being taken, and the cruel taunting she receives on a daily basis, from anonymous online trolls right through to cable news anchors and a bullying American president. Although Greta claims not to worry about such cruelty, it clearly takes its toll, not just on her but on the rest of the family, a point vividly captured in the film when we see her father Svante (who was with her on her entire journey) attending training on how to deal with death threats. The film powerfully explores this more private side of Thunberg without ever feeling invasive, presenting her struggles with loneliness and depression, as well as everyday moments of joy and silliness as we are reminded that Thunberg is still a teenager who actually wants nothing more than to return to her normal life.

As well as this, I Am Greta explores the significance of Asperger's in her life. Quick to correct an interviewer who asks about her "suffering", Greta pointedly says "I don't suffer from Asperger's, I have Asperger's", it nevertheless presents an additional challenge for her when navigating her new reality. Accustomed to quietness and set routines, Greta must adjust to a lifestyle that is anything but: hectic, unpredictable, and increasingly public. For Thunberg, living with Asperger's has helped her when it comes to understanding climate change; it is a black and white issue and she believes that people would benefit from looking at the issue with such a perspective.

For audiences watching I Am Greta, she wants people to see the film and understand that young people are not striking for fun, that the climate crisis is a real crisis and that the urgency of the scientific message isn't getting through. As well as that, through showing us a more three-dimensional portrait of the young woman at the centre of a global movement, the filmmakers also want to ensure that people have more respect for those who are different from them, and appreciate the people who point at problems - calling them out rather than allowing them to be swept under the carpet.

The changes and the level of awareness needed are nowhere to be seen today. All that we ask for is for our society to treat the climate crisis as a crisis, and give us a safe future. I think the film shows just how far that is from happening right now.

Greta Thunberg

I Am Greta serves as a brilliant companion piece to He Named Me Malalaa documentary about another remarkable global icon - Malala Yousafzai - which also vividly captured the personal and public side of a young woman adjusting to sudden fame. The Into Film catalogue is also stacked with additional related content, including our People & Democracy film list, a wealth of titles and resources around the environment, and our International Women's Day theme page which celebrates remarkable women both in front of and behind the camera. Our Black Star: Persuasive Speech assembly looks at the power of speechmaking using cinematic examples from significant figures in Black history, and there are a host of useful materials around the issue of mental health.

As young people stand up for their rights and the future of the planet like never before, films such as I Am Greta form an important role in capturing that spirit, and most importantly inspiring others to follow where people like Greta Thunberg have started.

I Am Greta is in UK cinemas from 16 October 2020. Special screenings followed by a Q&A will take place on Sunday 18 October.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Curation Manager

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has been with Into Film (and beforehand FILMCLUB) since 2012. 

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