'This Changes Everything': TIFF Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A wide-ranging, politically vocal doc with important points to make, but trouble pulling them together.

Naomi Klein’s latest book on climate change and the rape of the land comes to life in Avi Lewis’s documentary.

Director Avi Lewis (The Take) and journalist Naomi Klein return to environmentally active cinema with This Changes Everything, narrated by Klein and based on her hefty 2014 best-seller. Traveling from the tar sands of Canada to a Montana oil spill and around the world, Lewis films the protests of common citizens against big companies whose indiscriminate exploitation of Mother Earth is paving the way to hellish climate change. In striking images he captures real anger at what is happening, but chooses to emphasize the positive successes that grassroots protests have had. After all that has gone before, though, the upbeat ending is not all that reassuring. The largest audiences should hail from Klein’s readership and viewers already concerned about the environment.

Her voiceover opens with the dangerous remark that she has always hated films about climate change, which make even the end of the world boring. Some viewers may ponder hard on those words. While the stories the film tells are lively and never uninteresting, they fail to ignite an emotional explosion. The reach is also too broad for a film. Whereas The Take focused on one very specific topic, that of Argentine factory workers rewriting the rules of engagement with their bosses, here the subject of climate change caused by greedy businesses around the world is so generalized that it’s hard to grasp hold of. Still, the examples chosen are revealing, and the politics behind them forceful and well-argued.    

Support comes from a long list of celebrities attached to the project as executive producers, from filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron to Danny Glover and Seth MacFarlane. It’s hard to imagine anyone left of Ronald Reagan (cited) or the environmental deniers of the Heartland Foundation (mocked) taking issue with the film’s basic premises. The first horror story comes from Alberta, Canada, with the destruction of forests in the ever-expanding tar sands projects, which extract oil from the gooey wetlands. The cost to the environment is stripping the trees, subsoil, topsoil and clay from the virgin land. The benefits, as estimated by the Canadian Assn. of Petroleum Producers, are earnings of over $150 billion in the next decades.

See more The Scene at TIFF 2015 (Photos)

This raises the issue of how an economy in recession can say no to such enormous profits, probably the film's most thought-provoking point. The poignant example is Greece, with its back to the wall and pushed to sell its land to developers like a Canadian gold-processing plant.

Klein’s book expounds the thesis that the historical idea of nature as a machine that can and should be put under human domination is outmoded and wrong. This Enlightenment belief has been knowingly embraced by capitalism and the free market for profit-making. She instead proposes that citizens can counter this false idea by collectively resisting the rape of the land they live on. In the case of Alberta, the highly paid workers are at least benefiting from the plunder. But in India the proliferation of unsightly coal plants is said to bring unemployment, forcing farmers and fishermen off their land.

Lewis underlines how it is not governments that are spearheading progressive measures but spontaneous movements of residents whose determination forces the politicians to listen. The Indians’ success in getting permission revoked on a new coal power plant came at the cost of two men's lives, when police fired on the crowd of demonstrators. But other battles are still going on, like that of the extremely vocal First Nation people in North America — here, the Cheyenne and the Beaver Creek Cree. Calling these forces the “new environmentalism of the poor", the film offers them as a major source of hope for the future.

A quick trip to China and its choking air pollution leaves less of a mark. As negatively impressive as Beijing’s clouds of blinding smog are, they are countered by the government’s massive investment in solar energy. Once again, the filmmakers point to the masses of demonstrators who have forced the state to act.

Nor do President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel get off easily. Obama is shown bragging about the millions of miles of new gas and oil pipelines his administration has green-lighted. Evidently the film was made before last month’s announcement about his clean energy campaign, targeting coal-fired power plants. Merkel is shown as an architect of Europe’s economic stranglehold on Greece, which is even more of a threat from an environmental perspective.

But all this material has a hard time coming together in a natural crescendo, and no amount of vibrating violin strings can give it the emotional urgency or focus it badly needs in the closing scenes.

Production companies: Klein Lewis, Louverture Films in association with Dillywood, Bertha Foundation, Jaya Media Fund
Cast: Naomi Klein, Crystal Lameman, Alexis Bonogofsky, Mike Scott, Vanessa Braided Hair, Henry Red Cloud,Mary Christianou, Sunita Narain,
Director: Avi Lewis
Producers: Joslyn Barnes, Anadil Hossain
Co-producers:  Mridu Chandra, Driss Benyaklef, Katie McKenna
Executive producers:  Alfonso Cuaron, Danny Glover, Seth MacFarlane, Bertha Foundation, Jodie Evans, Matthew Palevsky, Lekha Singh, Alysha Sidhu, Shepard Fairey
Director of photography: Mark O Fearghail
Music: David Wall, Adam White
Editors: Nick Hector, Mary Lampson
Sales Agent: Film Buff

No rating, 89 minutes