How To Blow Up A Pipeline: How we made climate activism sexy
How To Blow Up A Pipeline director Daniel Goldhaber on creating a film that challenges what is acceptable in the fight against climate change.
by: Rory Doherty
19 Apr 2023
Ariela Barer leads a gang of climate activists in How to
Blow Up a Pipeline. Image: Vertigo Releasing
Right now, protest is under attack. Our legal rights to organise and demonstrate are being restricted, all while anti-protest messaging hinders social movements from gathering momentum. As a result, climate protesting is suffering: debates on the legitimacy of last year’s Just Stop Oil demonstrations undercut their intended impact, and Extinction Rebellion have just recently announced drawing back altogether from disruptive tactics.
So if peaceful activism is being criminalised, what do we lose by taking things up a notch?
So argues How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Based on the manifesto of the same name by Swedish author and associate professor of human ecology Andreas Malm, Pipeline reimagines Malm’s argument that no movement has ever been successful without sabotage into a pulse-pounding heist thriller. As director Daniel Goldhaber explains, the film is about “taking ideas that in a book are often very theoretical, and trying to figure out where those ideas live in the real world”.
Eight activists, all different in motive and ethnicity, gather in Texas to do exactly what the title says – damage property directly contributing to climate change. But Goldhaber, speaking to The Big Issue at the Glasgow Film Festival, didn’t just see the film as an experimentation chamber to play out Malm’s ideas; it would show just how effective direct action can be.
“The thing that we wanted to uphold was the idea that activism is complicated, morally and emotionally,” Goldhaber says. “But it’s also important that we tell stories that imagine success. The stories we tell and the narratives we put forward create the cultural possibility of what we believe we can do in the world.”
How to Blow Up a Pipeline avoids feeling preachy or academic by operating like a slick, edge-of-your-seat heist film – a no-brainer for Goldhaber. “I think there is no better genre to tell a story about a collective of people engaged in an action, though potentially illegal, that they believe to be an act of liberation. That’s what the legacy of the heist genre has been.”
Daniel Garber, the editor and an early collaborator on the film, agrees: “If you can provide the satisfactions offered in the heist genre, it also gives you leeway to introduce other ideas within that package.” Finding the film’s rhythm in the edit was made easier because every step of the filmmaking process had been engineered to maximise tension. “I was more reacting to the natural impulses of the footage than trying to impose a language onto it.”
In telling a story about collective action, its creation had to be collaborative. The film boasts 16 producer credits, several of them cast members, and was co-written by a lead actor, Ariela Barer.
Barer intentionally wrote the heist ringleader, Xochitl, the character she plays, with her own beliefs in mind. But she was also keen to subvert the eco-thriller trope of charismatic leaders. “I wanted her to be almost a difficult person,” she explains. “She is getting people on board despite her difficult nature, because of the ideas that bring everyone together. But also, the author of the plan is the most tense and afraid all the time – and that was very much me on set.”
For Barer, stepping from behind to in front of the camera offered a unique challenge. “When writing the movie, you can’t really go too far into one perspective. You can’t fully decide, ‘Yeah, blowing up a pipeline is the right thing to do.’ But when you play the character who’s decided that you do have to go all the way there, balancing that became an internal tension.”
In a time where radical activists are being asked to compromise to be taken seriously, Pipeline has a refreshingly brazen call to action. “We’ve been engaged in activism that is socially acceptable for about a generation on the issue of climate change, and fossil fuel usage is still going up. I struggle to understand when that is suddenly going to start working,” Goldhaber says. “Despite a desire for a progressive attitude in Hollywood, a lot of the narratives that still get financed and distributed ultimately don’t really ‘commit to the bit’. It was a matter of this being a conversation that needed to advance immediately.”
As an explosive metaphor for activists needing to restrategise, How to Blow Up a Pipeline had to focus on a young cohort. “It’s people who have grown up with the looming shadow of climate change over their lives, and who understand that it is going to be incumbent on them to actually make real, long-term change,” Garber explains. “Ultimately, it’s going to be up to younger people to escalate tactics.”
Barer cites a continental inspiration. “We always wanted to make a movie about a youth rebellion, but specifically we met a French activist who told us that young, sexy activists had revitalised the movement in France, and it was really important to have young, sexy people making direct action look cool,” she laughs. “So that was an influence.”
How to Blow Up a Pipeline is in cinemas from April 21
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