In my most recent post, I reviewed Disruption, a film released in September 2014 that described the organization of the People’s Climate March in New York City. I had the chance to interview Jared Scott, one of the film’s producers, to talk about Disruption and his thoughts on citizen protest and environmentalism. Jared spoke with me via Skype from Paris, where he’s currently attending the COP21 climate summit.
Mr. Scott, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Tell us, what was the initial inspiration for producing Disruption, your latest film about climate change?
Climate change has always been a particular area of focus for my producing & directing partner Kelly Nyks and myself. In 2013, we released a film called Do the Math that followed Bill McKibben, who is arguably America’s most renowned environmentalist and also the founder of 350.org, a grassroots global movement rising up to keep emissions down. In Do the Math, we explored the movement as it played defense against proposals to construct the Keystone XL Pipeline and offense as it promoted divestment from fossil fuels. That film became a catalyst for discussions about climate change, KXL, and Divestment in over 10,000+ member-led house party screenings, high schools, and universities worldwide. The film also made its US broadcast premiere on Al-Jazeera America and was aired internationally in over 10 territories.
While directing and producing Do the Math, I got involved with the movement's campaign – seeing filmmaking and the reciprocal nature of content and campaigns from a front row seat. At the film's premiere in New York, Bill told the audience that we had become “the chroniclers of the movement.”
»We saw the opportunity to make a film that would cornerstone the one prevailing action: get off the couch and take to the streets.«
After making several more short films to rally the movement, Kelly and I heard that the UN Climate Summit was taking place in September 2014 in New York, and that organizers were in the nascent stages of planning the largest climate march the world had ever seen. As the People's Climate March campaign started taking shape, we saw the opportunity to make a film that would cornerstone the one prevailing action: get off the couch and take to the streets. Disruption was born. We had an incredibly ambitious film and an even more ambitious timeline, but the support from the 350.org, Jon Warnow, the People’s Climate March organizers and the filmmaking community provided the right tools and talents to create a beautiful film. The stars really aligned. Looking back, I really don't think we could replicate that intensity again. 100 days before the march, we filmed our first organizers meeting. We spent time with environmentalists, religious groups, climate scientists, social justice campaigners, and a whole array of diverse people. We wanted to include all of these people in the film - it was important to bring everyone under the tent on this one – truly make it a kitchen table issue for people who don't consider themselves self-identified environmentalists and activists. We wanted to reach a broader audience.
Disruption emphasizes the power of citizen activism and people vocalizing their opinions, but how do you view your own profession, filmmaking, as a mechanism for social change?
We want you to watch these films because it strikes some kind of chord which allows you to want to be a better citizen. These films answer a question, one that I ask myself every day. “What can I try to do to make the world a better place?” These films become primers, starting points, jumping off points for those dialogues and personal endeavors of civic activity, policy engagement and activism. Member organizations, universities, and communities organize around our films and lead discussions afterwards. We hope to make action accessible for the viewer. We use film as a tool for social change.
»Filmmaking extends beyond just having a camera, going out, and cutting footage. It's an immersive process, where you have to think about how you're going to inform, inspire, and entertain.«
Filmmaking extends beyond just having a camera, going out, and cutting footage. It’s an immersive process, where you have to think about how you’re going to inform, inspire, and entertain - you have to make the facts interesting, have more ideas than information, and tell a good story. Making a quality film – not just the broccoli of entertainment - is the cornerstone of any social action continuum, if you want to have a social reverberation. You want the film to go viral.
I started making these films because I wanted to tell stories about the critical issues I’m passionate about. I wouldn’t call myself an activist, because I’m a storyteller and filmmaker first. I sometimes refer to myself as a messenger. In fact, I don’t know what to do at a rally when I’m not filming or thinking about filming. It’s my way of getting a front row seat to the action. A filmmaker’s hunger, drive, and passion all goes into making the film the best it can be – and you have to care about the issue you are covering. Documentary filmmaking is essentially a nonprofit industry – the rewards come in other forms of currency. The best currency is change – when someone comes up to you and says they made a change in their life because they watched your film. That's what it is all about.
You actually released Disruption two weeks before the People’s Climate March was set to occur in late September 2014. Could you explain the rationale behind that decision? Why not follow the movement through until its end?
Disruption was the ultimate example of using film as a tool for social change and giving people a direct action on which they could follow through – on September 21st, we need you to march. We need you to be a part of history. This is our moment.
»We made an educated guess with organizers that 14 days would be the sweet spot.«
We released the film 14 days before the march because we had to have enough lead time to get people fired up to go out to the streets in New York or join a solidarity march somewhere else in the US or around the world. We thought that releasing the film too early would lead to people's excitement dissipating, but releasing it too late might not allow the film to spread fast enough. We made an educated guess with organizers that 14 days would be the sweet spot. Over 1 million people watched Disruption within the first six days online, at house parties, at community screenings and in larger venues around the world. Vimeo made us a staff pick, Upworthy posted us, everyone from Al Roker, Chris Hayes, Huff Post, New York Times – and celebrities on Twitter – shared the film. We ended up making history - 400,000 people marched in New York City and thousands more in 162 countries around the world.
What do you consider to be the biggest challenge when producing a documentary that distills complex scientific information into something other people can understand? You might have a burning passion to protect the environment, but maybe the public doesn’t. How do you spark that passion in them?
It’s tough. In filmmaking, you have to be able to take a lot of information and keep enough of it so that you’re doing justice to the facts, yet you also have to realize that there’s only so much data people can take. We want to inspire and educate people, but we also need to entertain them. If you’re not entertained for 54 minutes watching Disruption, it’s not going to have the impact that it needs to have. We had to find the right balance between facts, figures, and emotional content.
Facts alone don’t move people; it has to be emotionally resonant content. Ideas trump information, but there has to be enough information there so that the ideas and insights stick.
The COP21 is currently taking place in Paris – a city still recovering from the insidious terrorist attacks of November 13 and the capital of a country which has declared a state of emergency in the aftermath of those attacks. What impact do you think the absence of citizen activism in this particular situation will have at the UN summit right now? As somebody who is currently in Paris, what contrasts do you see with the People’s Climate March from last year?
The People’s Climate March truly was a huge victory. 400,000 people protested in New York City and thousands of people protested in 162 different countries. It was peaceful, large, diverse, and exciting. There were far more people there than even the organizers expected. Van Jones said that “1/3 of the people in New York were there because they watched Disruption,” which was a really incredible thing to hear. Last September, you felt this collective effervescence: watching the film, going to the march, and seeing leaders respond.
»Today, Paris is a little different.«
Today, Paris is a little different. Unfortunately due to the savage attacks on November 13, Paris is still in a state of emergency. From what I’ve experienced here, there are more police out, and you get the sense that it’s a city still recovering from those horrific attacks. That has cast a shadow, unfortunately, over the ability to organize and march in a way that calls attention to climate issues in a peaceful way that is disruptive on a scale but tolerant to the people still reeling from the attacks. The march scheduled here for November 29was cancelled. That was a big blow to organizers who had worked on it for a long time. Having the Champs-Élysées filled with 300,000 people would have sent a message to world leaders that the people are demanding they need to do more.
But being here in Europe, I would say that there is a lot of mainstream attention around COP21. It’s definitely visible – there are windmills placed around the city, art (like a giant whale cut-down on the Seine), exhibits, kiosks - not to mention it is all over the news.
There is a lot more to the climate change conversation than just taking to the streets – there is a penumbra of ways to get involved.
What advice would you have for students in the US, Germany, and around the world who still want to protest but may not be able to attend a big rally like the People’s Climate March and make an impact?
I think it’s interesting that you say “protest” because protesting isn’t the only way to make an impact. As a filmmaker, I go out and make films. If I was an economist, I might go out and try to write some kind of treatise or a paper. If I was a dancer, I might dance. If I was a playwright, I might write a play about climate change. What I mean to say is, try to harness your passion and figure out how to get involved. That might be through art, policy, or organizing. Your passion will guide you.
»Try to harness your passion and figure out how to get involved.«
I also think it’s helpful to get involved with larger organizations and see what they’re doing. You might find that work inspiring, or you might find it stifling – in which case you’ll go out and do something else. Being involved in your local community always helps, because you’re always able to connect with people in your own backyard. That sense of community and solidarity is incredibly important.
There are many different levels of engagement across a variety of different areas. As long as you find what works best for you, you can’t go wrong.
Mr. Scott, thank you so much for speaking with me today.
Brandon Greenblatt is a student majoring in International Affairs and studying German at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and originally from Matthews, North Carolina. Brandon is no stranger to writing and publishing as the editor of the Western Europe section of The Caravel, Georgetown's international affairs newspaper.