I Am Greta director on Thunberg's 'unbelievable' rise as climate action icon

Greta Thunberg.
Greta Thunberg. Photo credit: Getty Images

Spearheading an international movement and becoming a global icon for your campaign is no easy feat, yet Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg has done exactly that.

Within the space of just over a year, the 17-year-old went from holding one-person sit-ins outside parliament in Stockholm to speaking at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in front of world leaders.

A new documentary, I Am Greta, follows Thunberg during this year-long rise to the world stage and gives a behind the scenes insight into her life as an activist.

Director Nathan Grossman first heard about Thunberg's protest through a friend who'd met her family. He learned she was planning to sit outside parliament in the weeks leading up to Sweden's September 2018 election as she felt no action was being taken on climate change.

The 29-year-old filmmaker initially thought it would be a three-week shoot, with Thunberg one of a few people in a short film about child activists. Instead, the project developed into something much more, and the finished product is a feature film about the highs and lows of the first year of her School Strike for Climate movement.

Grossman said his year with Thunberg "blew [his] mind".

"Me and Greta, we used to joke that if you pinched yourself in the arm every time something happened that was so unlikely, your arm would be totally blue. Because so many things happened that were just unbelievable," he told Newshub.

The global climate strikes have resulted in millions of people taking to the streets across the world. In New Zealand, it's estimated about 170,000 people marched nationwide during the last street protest in September 2018, with 80,000 of these being in Auckland.

Greta Thunberg outside Riksdagen, the Swedish parliament building, in August 2018.
Greta Thunberg outside Riksdagen, the Swedish parliament building, in August 2018. Photo credit: Getty Images

Thunberg's clear resonation with many young people is because "she's just herself", Grossman said, and because she doesn't construct an image of who she is.

"People want someone in their lives, and especially when it comes to this issue, that really believes in it, and [she] really practices what she preaches and it is who she is," he said.

Thunberg limits her carbon footprint and overall impact on the environment by being vegan, upcycling and not flying. Notably, she sailed from Europe to New York City to attend the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019, serving as part of her beliefs of the importance of reducing emissions.

"I think that's why, for me at least, that's why I felt she was interesting and I think many people have felt the same," Grossman said.

'You will have highs and you will have lows'

Among showing the positives of Thunberg's rise, Grossman said it was important to him to include the negative aspects too, like when she's reading hateful comments about herself on social media and facing large bouts of homesickness while sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to New York.

"I think it's so important that we think and see people as three-dimensional beings, in the sense that you will have highs and you will have lows. I think when you make a portrait of someone, that should be included," he said.

He said he also felt a responsibility to not hinder Thunberg and her protest - an aspect which meant he worked without a crew and did most of the filming and sound recording himself.

"I'm a cinematographer and I felt it was easier to do it that way, especially in the beginning when you don't have any budget and you're looking to see what this is going to be," he said.

"Then as her activism kicked off, I felt I need to do this very observationally and I don't want - from an ethical standpoint - to be a burden on her activism that was starting to take lots of time and energy."

In I Am Greta, Thunberg travels around Europe while meeting various world leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

Grossman said being a single-person crew helped him attend and film these exclusive meetings.

"Being an independent filmmaker today, getting into these very exclusive meetings and one-on-ones with political leaders can be very tough. If you're a big crew, it's much, much easier to get stopped on the way," he said.

"You can get very little time in these rooms and then having a crew that needs to sync with each other, you generally lose that time."

'It just falls onto young people's shoulders'

In following Thunberg from the beginnings of her movement to meeting with high-profile politicians, he said the passion and knowledge she and her fellow activists have for climate action is evident.

Grossman believes the global climate strike campaign is a "huge issue" for the young protestors to participate in because they're the ones who are going to live with the lasting effects of climate change.

"If you go down to many of these school strikers that are Generation Z, they will live a majority of their life in a world that is going to be a few or more degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels," he said, referencing one of the demands the Fridays for Future movement has made to keep global temperature rise to below 1.5C compared with pre-industrial levels.

"So for them this is a huge issue. But if you're a middle-aged or late-in-your-career politician, you just want to have a nice ride onto the end of your career and maybe chill, and maybe for you [climate change] won't be as bad."

School climate strikes in Auckland and Wellington.
School climate strikes in Auckland and Wellington. Photo credit: Newshub.

The movement is made up of "very reluctant" protesters, Grossman said, because most of the teenagers don't actually want to miss school but they instead feel a responsibility to tell politicians what will happen if climate change action isn't taken.

Students who chose to attend strikes rather than go to school caused contention among principals in New Zealand, some of who threatened truancy if pupils went along to protest.

"These young people are not strikers that love to stay away from school. Most of them are fairly nerdy and like to go to school, but they have felt this responsibility suddenly got shoved onto their shoulders because the adult world spent 30-40 years just pushing this forward," Grossman said.

"At one point - puff - it just falls onto young people's shoulders, and that's not something these youngsters have asked for."

He hopes his documentary will help bring generations together to talk about climate action.

"I really hope people will watch it together in families, because I think it's such an interesting thing to speak with your parents and grandparents about," he said.

"If we don't listen to these young people that don't have that political and economical power and just continue to ignore that, as we've done for a long time, then I'm worried that we'll create a generational divide. I hope that the film will help us start talking about that and also have a discussion at home about narrowing the gap."

I Am Greta is in New Zealand cinemas from October 16 before it will be streaming via DocPlay from November 14.