Climate activism on camera: ELL speaks to director Emily James

Emily James, Portait by Gabrielle Motola

In the basement of Toynbee Studios Emily James and her team are waiting to hear if they have secured an important piece of funding.

Her new not-for-profit feature film, Just Do It: get off your arse and change the world has been made without the backing of a broadcaster and is entirely crowd-funded.  “We’ve had so little money it’s been ridiculous,” she says.

The award-winning filmmaker was born in California, educated at Cambridge and has lived in Hackney for over 10 years. Her documentaries show global issues being addressed through local, community action, with ordinary people “taking part in this thing that we call civil society.”

Her 2006 film The Battle for Broadway Market documented the three-month occupation of a small Italian café by local residents as it faced demolition by the council to make way for a new block of flats.

“I was looking at different ways that I could make a film about the gentrification of the area – gentrification is a slightly loaded word, but it’s true!” says James. “Someone told me to turn up one morning at the café and I wouldn’t be disappointed.”

It was the beginning of the occupation that got unprecedented press attention locally, nationally and even globally. “I started filming with them, and three months later I was still there. Nobody expected it to last that long.”

Unfortunately a seven-months pregnant James was so focused on filming the sit-in, the distribution got buried in Channel 4’s scheduling. “It hasn’t had nearly enough exposure, especially locally,” she explains. “The people who live in the market now should really be aware of its recent history and community.”

Just Do It documents the clandestine activities of several climate change activist groups and individuals in the UK. It begins at the G20 conference in April 2009 and then follows the groups as they chain themselves to Parliament, super-glue themselves to bank trading floors, and attack coal power stations en-masse. The filming ended in April this year, and James hopes for a release in April 2011.

It was at the G20 protest that James was first galvanized to represent climate change action beyond the clips of “faceless, nameless activists” seen on the news.

“We were the last cameras at the G20 protest when they cleared the climate camp out and we caught a few of the assaults on film,” she explains. “I then realised the importance of having cameras there, from a documentation point of view.”

As much of the footage would be of activists risking their own security and breaking the law in the name of climate change, it was understandable that many were hesitant at the idea of being filmed.

Together with lawyers, she worked out a filming strategy that would not jeopardise her own security or the legal safety of those being filmed.  “I relied heavily on tape-runners,” she says. “They would come and pick up the footage from me and run them to a safe-house so that I was never carrying anything incriminating in the moment.”

Despite assuring the climate activists that no footage would be seen until after their court appearances, it was a “gradual, slow process” before James and her camera gained their trust. “Even people who liked me as a person and respected what I was doing simply didn’t want to be filmed,” she explains.

After several months of being with the various groups, and proving her integrity, James began to gain unprecedented access. It is this trust and shared belief in climate change action that makes the footage so intuitive – James gives a previously unheard voice to people usually marginalised and demonised in the popular press.

Several clips depict the disparity between the intentions of peaceful protestors and their harsh treatment by security forces.

“The fact that terrorism laws are applied to direct action is utterly inappropriate,” says James. She hopes the film will dispel some of the ill-informed assumptions people have about activists, namely that they are single-minded crusty hippies; a stereotype that is “at least 15 years out of date!”

James is adamant that the film is not for activists – she hopes to take the message beyond the circles where it is already understood. “It’s aimed at people who could potentially come on-board as supporters of direct action. I want people to come out of the film inspired and with a different attitude.”

“We chose the film’s title because to me it encapsulates the spirit of the people,” says James. They are not acting because they expect an instant result, but because it is the right thing to do.

“If you see that something is wrong in the world you have a moral obligation to try and stop it,” says James. “It doesn’t matter if it’s going to work or not. Resistance for the sake of resistance is what’s important.”

To find out more about Emily James’ upcoming film, visit the website here.

Gabrielle Motola is a photographer based in London. For more of her work, visit her website here.

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