When 15-year-old Greta Thunberg skipped school to sit on the pavement outside the Swedish Parliament, holding a sign that said “School Strike for the Climate,” director Nathan Grossman was there filming her in those earliest days. He was there when she traveled to European capitals — by electric car or train to discourage emissions from planes, and accompanied by her protective father — speaking to ever-growing crowds and calling for aggressive action to protect the planet. Grossman was even there on the rough, two-week boat trip Thunberg took across the Atlantic on her way to address the United Nations.
As I Am Greta follows her through her first year as an activist, 2018-2019, this verite Hulu documentary premiering (out of competition) at the Venice Film Festival creates a close-up, behind-the-headlines portrait of a passionately committed, media-savvy young woman.
Grossman, a Swedish director who was introduced to the Thunberg family through a friend, had great access, which is not the same as intimacy. The documentary captures a few unguarded moments that reveal the personal emotional toll of Thunberg’s improbable fame. It is well-known that she has Asperger’s Syndrome, and as she and her father point out here, she is most comfortable with routine and order. Thunberg’s occasional voiceovers accompany images of her speeches and travels, lucidly revealing how resolute she is. We don’t know when those voiceovers were recorded, though, and at times the film feels orchestrated in the way reality television does. But overall, I Am Greta is a smoothly constructed view of a heroine in the making, and of how the world largely embraced and sometimes dismissed her.
As the film compiles her speeches to various groups of international leaders, it is fascinating to watch the faces of the adults change. In that first year, they didn’t know what they were in for. In scene after scene, as she takes the stage, the adults look at this teenager with slightly condescending, even bemused faces, which turn stony as she fiercely delivers her message. While speaking in London’s Parliament she addresses her remarks to the world’s leaders, saying, “You lied to us. You gave us false hope.” She famously told the UN General Assembly in New York, “How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” We see her address the European Union then disgustedly take off the headphones with the translator’s voice when President Jean-Claude Juncker speaks without regard for anything she has just said. “All they want is to be spotlighted to make it look like they care, as if they are doing something,” she says in voiceover. “They know what sells. In actual fact they are doing nothing.”
She quickly learns the value of media herself. She visits German’s decimated Hamburg Forest and tells the television cameras that she came to see it for herself, and also “so media would focus on it.”
Some of that focus has been brutal, as the film briefly notes. In clips, we see an unidentified Fox News commentator call her “a mentally ill Swedish child,” and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro refer to her as “this brat.” We also see her sitting in her garden, reading such comments on her phone and laughing them off.
Those personal glimpses, rare though they are, take the film beyond what most people know and assume about Thunberg and make it worthwhile. She dispassionately explains that she was so frightened by watching a film about climate change shown at school that she was depressed for several years, suffering severe weight loss. Her father refers to the “selective mutism” of that time, when she only spoke to her parents, her sister and their dogs. Her activism gave her a purpose and allowed her to overcome those fears. More evidence of how partial a view this is, though: While Thunberg’s father is a prominent presence on screen, her mother appears in just a couple of short scenes, and her sister not at all.
As with anyone in such a high-profile situation, stress at times catches up with Thunberg. During the Atlantic crossing, on a racing yacht, at times the wind howls and waves crash over the side of the boat. One night, she tearfully records an audio diary on her phone, which is wrapped in plastic to protect it from the water. She misses her mother, her sister and the dogs, she says. She misses home. “I miss having a regular life, with routines.”
The effect of these trying moments is to make Thunberg seem even stronger and more heroic than before, in a film that covers only the first stage of a dynamic ongoing story.
Production Company: B-Reel Films
Director and Cinematographer: Nathan Grossman
Producers: Cecilia Nessen, Fredrik Heinig
Editors: Hanna Lejonqvist, Charlotte Landelius
Music: Jon Ekstrand, Rebekka Karijord
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)