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How To Blow Up A Pipeline, 2023(Film Still)

Why this explosive climate crisis film is causing so much controversy

How To Blow Up A Pipeline is a rallying call for a bolder, more radical style of activism. ‘It’s [about] being energised,’ the director explains. ‘It’s still possible to fight against this devastating situation that we’re in’

When How to Blow Up a Pipeline screened at Mar del Plata International Film Festival, a woman stood up and, in Spanish, yelled at the filmmakers: real activists don’t spill oil, she exclaimed, they protect the planet. In response, another audience member leapt from their seat and insisted she misunderstood the film. A screaming match ensued. “People were booing and cheering each individual person,” recalls Daniel Goldhaber, the film’s director. “That’s exciting.”

“It’s meant to provoke,” says Daniel Garber, the film’s editor. “If it didn’t provoke, it would be toothless.”

“No activism, sabotage, or evolution is without extraordinary human complexity,” says Goldhaber. “That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be considered. If someone screams at the end of the movie angrily, at least they’re thinking about it – and that’s a success.”

Adapted from Andreas Malm’s book of the same name, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is as incendiary as the title suggests. Whereas Malm wrote a non-fiction manifesto, Goldhaber’s gritty heist-thriller visualises how a group of activists plan to destroy an oil refinery in Texas to plummet stock prices and issue a warning. Bomb-making methodology is explained in detail, as are their philosophies and tactics: multiple explosions are essential to indicate none of it was by accident.

Among the ensemble are Alisa (Jayme Lawson) and her partner Theo (Sasha Lane), a leukaemia sufferer who contracted her illness from pollution; wannabe documentarian Shawn (Marcus Scribner); explosives expert Michael (Forrest Goodluck); a randy couple (Kristine Froseth, Lukas Gage) turned on by endangering their lives; and Xochitl (Ariela Barer), whose mother died in a heat wave. Barer, a former Marvel star, also co-wrote the screenplay with Goldhaber and Jordan Sjol.

“My experience with environmental activism was at a standstill by the time we were writing this movie,” says Barer, who, with the Daniels (not those ones), is speaking to me while attending the Glasgow Film Festival. “I had been so active in the Dakota Access Pipeline stuff. I was very involved with the divest movement. I was protesting in the streets and going to meetings. It felt like we were doing everything right, but nothing could stop these machines that were built to be unstoppable. Reading Andreas’s book was the first time in a while I felt reinvigorated. It showed me there were other ways, that you could stop the unstoppable.”

Whereas First Reformed and its environmental themes are popular with young people, it’s written and directed by Paul Schrader, a notoriously grumpy old man. In contrast, Barer was 23 during the shoot; according to Goldhaber, nearly everyone listed in the credits is under 35. “A lot has to do with the immediacy of feeling like we don’t have a future,” says Goldhaber. “I don’t believe in my heart of hearts that I’m going to see past 50. It’d be a miracle if I see past 40.”

“It’s incredibly condescending when older people say that our generation is going to solve the problem,” says Garber. “Generations that refused any kind of systemic change have put this pressure on younger people, and it creates an anger that can only be expressed in a form that is as urgent as the film we made.”

Even then, there was a generational divide within the creative team: Garber and Goldhaber are millennials. “This is awful,” says Barer, laughing, “but I can’t stop thinking about that Batman quote: ‘You merely adopted the dark, but I was born in it.’ Millennials were beaten down over time, but Gen Z was born into that darkness. For me, as someone who is older Gen Z, I refuse to give in to doom. That’s the next rebellion: self-preservation as a radical act. Our initial argument in the writing process was: how do we not give in to the pessimistic, nihilistic ending that’s so easy to do with a movie like this?”

Subsequently, How to Blow Up a Pipeline possesses popcorn thrills, literally explosive action set-pieces, and a feeling that cinemagoers could unite after a screening to take action in large numbers. Shot on 16mm, the mission feels grounded and visceral, as if you’re actually witnessing a daring documentary that’s imploring for copycat activists.

Garber credits his editing style to his background in non-fiction. “I had to bring out this sense that everything unfolding was immediate and not premeditated,” he says. “The camera’s not anticipating what people are doing, but rather responding to the natural chemistry of the ensemble.”

‘Millennials were beaten down over time, but Gen Z was born into that darkness. For me, as someone who is older Gen Z, I refuse to give in to doom. That’s the next rebellion: self-preservation as a radical act’ – James Barer

“We pull the audience out of the heist at incredibly high-tension moments to go into character flashbacks,” says Barer, unable to keep a straight face. “This was a conscious choice because edging is an advanced and effective technique.”

Do the Daniels agree that edging is an advanced and effective technique?

“Yeah,” says Goldhaber. “To give a slightly nerdier answer, the flashbacks dramatise why somebody might do what they do in this movie. Obviously, Nocturama was the first thing we all watched as a reference. Loving the way Nocturama plunges you into the thick of the action, we knew we would start the movie that way.” Thus flashbacks in the second half serve up the character backstories without delaying the early heist machinations. “Or you could say edging is an advanced and effective technique.”

Nocturama, a 2016 thriller by Bertrand Bonello, dared to make terrorism committed by French teenagers look sexy and fun. At the time, it was deemed so controversial that it was allegedly pulled from Cannes and unable to be distributed in the UK – Dazed’s interview request was ignored. While How to Blow Up a Pipeline has Vertigo and Neon as its respective UK and US distributors, its international release has faced obstacles.

For instance, all their Scandinavian distribution offers were pulled after the Nord Stream exploded. Question marks hang over Latin America. “There are territories in Southeast Asia where there’s strict censorship and the movie is unreleasable,” Goldhaber says. “We were lucky in India that we played the Goa Film Festival, which is a government-run festival, and that gave it a seal of approval – even though free speech in India is radically tightening.”

While the trio don’t consider filmmaking to be a form of activism, they believe that cultural production has a role to play in social change. During the planning stages, Goldhaber also consulted activists on whether a film would be of value. “One of the big answers we got back is that a lot of people understand the world through the media they consume,” the director says. “Acts of activism, sabotage, and social disruption are inevitable in the fight against climate change. They happened before we made the movie, and they’ll almost certainly continue to escalate. Who is telling that story? Right now, it’s predominantly corporate-owned news and media.

“A mainstream, accessible movie about these ideas serves as a resource for people to understand the work that’s happening. It also serves something for people who feel a sense of climate doomism. The book – and I hope the film – communicates a feeling of hope, of being energised, and feeling that it’s still possible to fight and do something about this devastating situation that we’re in.”

Goldhaber adds, “The biggest thing is to ask this question loudly and publicly: if the existential threat of climate change is the end of life on Earth as we know it, what kind of tactics are necessary to fight it?”

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is out in UK and Irish cinemas on April 21

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