TIFF 2020: Greta Thunberg's documentary paints a teenager who wants to save the world from catching fire

It is when I Am Greta captures Thunberg on the move, highlighting how her personal anxieties stand in the way of her larger responsibilities, that its commentary is at its most compelling.

Poulomi Das September 18, 2020 09:23:35 IST
TIFF 2020: Greta Thunberg's documentary paints a teenager who wants to save the world from catching fire

The opening sequence of debutante Swedish filmmaker Nathan Fressman’s I Am Greta is as spellbinding as the central protagonist of the documentary. When the film opens in August 2019, we hear the sound of waves crashing against each other before we get to see 15-year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg.

She is sitting by herself on a rickety boat, staring at the distance. In the backdrop is the turbulent Atlantic Ocean. Framed against the cinematic quality of the thunderous waves, Thunberg appears almost insignificant, and yet she manages to single handedly command the viewer’s attention. That, in essence, sums up the teenage iconoclast’s meticulous efforts to have world leaders acknowledge the severity of the environmental threat facing the planet: easily dismissable but altogether impossible to avoid. 

Back then, Thunberg was in the midst of a two-week sea voyage to attend the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, where she eventually delivered her seminal “How dare you?” speech. In contrast, kids her age were enjoying summer break back home. If put in her shoes, many would have taken the easy decision to fly to New York instead of agreeing to an uncomfortable journey on sea. But Thunberg, by her own admission, does not want to be the kind of person who claims to believe in one thing but ends up doing something which contradicts that very belief. When the young activist says she is dedicated about reversing climate change, she means it. For the last few years, her entire family has eschewed travelling by airplane so as to reduce their impact on the environment. Fressman underlines that her decision to chart the distance to New York by sea then, is less a publicity stunt and more a case of her setting yet another example. The trouble, as we find out through the course of the rousing I Am Greta, is that the innumerable adults in power have no inclination to follow.

By virtue of having access to Thunberg before she amassed international recognition and awe, Fressman manages to capture lightning in a bottle. I Am Greta is at once urgent and intimate, an indictment of a world in collective denial as well as a portrait of a childhood sacrificed at the altar of its denial. The approach of the documentary, playing at this year’s scaled-down edition of Toronto International Film Festival, is rather straightforward. Fressman assembles it as a thorough summary of how Thunberg, diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, OCD, and selective mutism, came to spearhead a grassroots movement that culminated into a global revolution. 

The action starts in September 2018 when Thunberg, a highly intelligent and empathetic teenager, was a lone protester holding the “Skolstrejk för klimatet” (School strike for climate) placard on the pavement outside the Swedish Parliament. Soon, a bewildered passerby politely admonishes her for not being in school. “Why would I need an education if there is no future?,” Thunberg bluntly offers in reply, offering a clue to the steely oratorical style that she would come to adopt in the future. Throughout the film, Thunberg, moved to action by government apathy, holds onto this concerned stance, reiterating time and again that there is simply no time to waste.

In time, we see her protest attracting diligent company– mostly young students like her – and fervent local media attention. Yet, there is no visible dent caused in Sweden’s politics: despite the growing notoriety of her demonstrations, the environment does not feature as an election priority. That is buttressed by the fact that her popularity does prompt the rest of the world to sit up and take notice (A scene where Thunberg and her father share their unvarnished excitement over Arnold Schwarzenegger sharing her video on Twitter is intensely rewarding).

TIFF 2020 Greta Thunbergs documentary paints a teenager who wants to save the world from catching fire

Greta Thunberg in a still from I Am Greta. Instagram

From then onward, I Am Greta is structured like a packed travel itinerary. Thunberg starts receiving a cycle of unending invitations to conferences and meetings across Europe cross-crossing from an appearance at the UN Climate Conference in Poland and the EU Parliament in Brussels to a pit-stop at Paris for a meeting with President Emmanuel Macron, and a visit to raise media awareness for the razed Hambach Forest in Germany. Attending these events means that Thunberg is forced to constantly live out of a life on the road along with her Svante, her devoted father, growing occasionally homesick and irritable but simultaneously displaying the courage to remain resolute about the task at hand. 

It is when I Am Greta captures Thunberg on the move, highlighting how her personal anxieties stand in the way of her larger responsibilities, that its commentary is at its most compelling.

For one, Fessman gives Thunberg’s expeditions across the globe the rockstar treatment, a satisfying device that affords large-scale student-led protests against governments in power the cult of sold-out concerts.

One gets to sense Thunberg’s sincerity and intelligence (“She knows the climate issue 97 percent better than most politicians in the world,” her father states in one scene), stemming in part from her disposition of looking at her diagnosis as a superpower instead of an obstacle. Even when she starts getting picked on by politicians thrice her age and size, being mercilessly trolled online, and receiving death threats, Thunberg, wise beyond her years, adeptly drowns out the noise. 

Fessman does a remarkable job of compiling how Thunberg’s standing as a generational figure-head benefits from her traits: her insistence on calling out hypocrisy (a winning moment has Thunberg question the credibility of an UN Climate Conference that is serving meat for lunch); her refusal to sugarcoat the disastrous environmental consequences awaiting mankind (one sequence observes her as she refuses to get rid of the word “mass extinction” from the draft of her speech when her father advises her to); and her wide-eyed clarity.

In that sense, there emerges two distinct personalities of Thunberg during this part of the documentary: the first is, Greta Thunberg, the assertive activist who remains conspicuously uncomfortable around the adults in power, infuriated at their empty promises of support that follows the predictable route of them washing their hands off any structural changes. The second is Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old who comes-of-age after finally getting to develop healthy friendships with teenagers who see her for who she is. 

The most affecting bits of I Am Greta is the subplot that spends time with Thunberg as she forges relationships with the young activists from around the world, all of whom count her as an inspiration for deciding to take to the streets and fight for their future. On the train journey to meet them, the camera captures her smiling at the thought of getting to meet people who are interested in the same things as her. Until then, Thunberg, an introverted teenager, who was relentlessly bullied in school, had restricted herself to a life of isolation, one that revolved around her family and her two dogs. There is a visible change in her demeanor once she starts socialising with her new friend: Her mood improves, she grows more confident and begins to enjoy the company of people her age. These developments acquire a joyful meaning when viewed from the perspective of Thunberg’s supportive parents, who devote themselves to the fringes as Thunberg, who once almost starved to death, starts reclaiming parts of herself and transforming into the cheerful daughter that they once knew.

Still if it seems like I Am Greta dials down on the sentimentality of being Greta Thunberg, it is because this is the kind of film that becomes more essential once you realise the things that it leaves unsaid. By the end, it is hard to disagree with Fessman’s take on there being perhaps no other person in our current times who can represent the extent of our fractured realities than Thunberg. Usually, heroes demand to be seen. But Thunberg just wants to be heard. She has already managed to grasp that heroes cannot foster change if they do not have an audience. It is what makes her the ideal 21st century heroine.

I Am Greta was screened at Toronto International Film Fetsival 2020.

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