Emily James’ forthcoming feature: Just Do It, A Tale of Modern Day Outlaws, follows the lives of some of the UK’s most prolific environmental campaigners from the direct action groups Climate Camp and Plane Stupid.
The mainstream media has often portrayed these people as unlawful hippies with a hunger for vandalism, at worst, terrorists. Just Do It paints a very different picture, creating an intimate portrait of an engaged group of young people, ready to stand up for what they believe in. Just Do It doesn’t pretend to present a balanced debate on climate change, yet still manages to evade all the clichés of ‘the activist film,’ favouring humour and a cinematic sensitivity over insular and preachy rhetoric. For these campaigners, barricading banks, outmaneuvering police, and superglueing themselves to each other is just an ordinary day at the office, but there is nothing ordinary about these young people or their passion for a fairer world. A truly inspirational film of our time.
i-D online caught up with the director, fresh from the world premiere at Sheffield Doc Fest.
How difficult was it to make this film completely independently? I didn’t start out with that intention. I figured I would gain this unique access and show it to a broadcaster who would snap it up. That didn’t really pan out in the way I thought it would. The main reason being that it took quite a long time to get people to agree to be filmed, and I had to win people over to gain their trust. When I started talking to broadcasters, I realised quickly that there wasn’t really an appetite for the type of film I wanted to make.
Why do you think that was? Within television, if you manage to tick the boxes of something counter-intuitive or if you’re going to get shocking headlines, they don’t mind being political, they’ll be outrageously political, but if you’re intending to create a sympathetic portrait of a group of actively engaged citizens who care passionately about what they are doing and you’re not interested in being snarky about them or hanging them out to dry, then they have a bit more trouble with that.
During filming, were you ever in any sticky situations that you wish you’d avoided? The whole of Copenhagen. From the minute we entered the city the police oppression was unbelievable. I thought I’d been in a lot of situations like that throughout the years. A while back, I was at the Genoa protests with a little commission for a three-minute film for Channel 4. I was attacked by a group of anarchists who came after me and broke my camera. I thought I’d been through the wars, but Copenhagen was a scale that I had never experienced. It was very intense and really shocking. As a journalist, we have the right to know that our material is protected under the law. From an activist point of view, there is the right not to be detained when you haven’t done anything wrong. People were detained for the suspicion of something they might be considering to do possibly. We’ve fought really hard to protect ourselves with these rights in what we believe to be a functioning democracy. The way that we were treated was brutal beyond belief. Psychologically brutal, not just physically. They would come into where we were staying without knocking, just walk in and start poking around our things. They would do anything they could to keep tabs on us. They picked up Lauren, our producer, under the banner of using anti-terror legislation. They said that it was a case of mistaken identity, but even the woman they were supposed to be looking for, the grand total of evidence against her was that she had been filmed in a train station holding a camera. It was very scary.
Many of the characters in the film are quite young. Is this representative of the climate change direct action movement? Rowan was 19 when we were filming with him, and there’s a whole sequence in the film with this young group of activists that do an action on the Royal Bank of Scotland during the Blackheath climate camp. The average age was about 20. I think that young people are becoming more engaged with their future. It comes down to the fact that if you’re 20, you might be envisaging a lot of pretty dark stuff on the horizon and you’re going to be left holding the baton and there’s not many people looking out for their interests. So it puts a fire in their belly to really try and do something about it, above and beyond waiting for the reigns of power to be handed over to their generation.
How do you hope this film will feature in that process? My intention was that there was an important thing happening and no one to document it. I was in the right place and I knew the right people so it was kind of a responsibility to take a page out of their book, about trying to give them a place in a historical sense. As the project evolved, we started wanting to engage with a younger audience to show them that it is something worthwhile to get up and try to do something and to try to change the world they are living in for the better. I remember watching films like This Is What Democracy Looks Like and I was so inspired by the story in Seattle and what they had done there. Films can inspire people in a way that almost nothing else can. We definitely hope it will inspire people to get out and to make the world they want to see, rather than accept the world that has been given to them.
What’s next for you? I’m going to do as little as possible for as long as possible. It’s going to take months for the film to roll out, promotion and release. I’m not sure I have the strength to do another independent project of this scope for a while. It takes a lot out of you. Maybe I’ll get lucky and somebody will come and offer me a fully funded feature documentary on something I’m interested in. That’d be nice.
Just Do It: A Tale of Modern-Day Outlaws is on a rolling release from 15th July.