It was a small act of protest. But when she sat down in from of the Swedish parliament building in Stockholm in August 2018 armed with a cardboard placard that read “School strike for climate,” climate activist Greta Thunberg sent a message that continues to reverberate today.
At first, people just stopped, took pictures, and spoke to Thunberg. Both she and they could have had any idea that this schoolgirl's act of truancy would have such an affect on the rest of the world. Her humble start grew a truly organic movement for change — first on the streets, then within her own school community... and eventually sparking climate protests across the world.
Documentary filmmaker, Nathan Grossman, was one of those early followers. He began following Thunberg that summer in 2018. Now, never-seen-before footage charts Thunberg’s rise in a new documentary, I Am Greta, released for streaming on Hulu on November 13.
In the film, Grossman attempts to trace how Thunberg became an unlikely hero of environmental urgency He attempts to peel back the layers, unveiling the activist behind the news, the girl who went viral after her September 2019 speech made at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York. There, she condemned world leaders for neglecting climate change. With her trembling voice, she made headlines when she asked: “How dare you?”
The film also shows how Thunberg became the figurehead for the most pressing issue of our time — climate change. Framing Thunberg as “the girl who started it all,” it shows how one shy girl with Asperger’s managed to step into the spotlight, generating climate strikes on every continent.
“Together, we can make a difference,” she says, as do the millions of people who have followed in her footsteps.
The real Greta — In the film, we see Thunberg at 15, navigating school, home, online activism, and her new-found audience both and on and offline. Grossman also follows her tumultuous wind-powered boat voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to speak at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York City (she sets an example by refusing to fly).
The Greta Thunberg Grossman reveals is not a Swedish teenage activist, nor a media darling. Rather, Thunberg is shown as a vehicle for wider societal change.
What we learn from the film is that, beyond the headlines, she campaigns like her life depends on it. Her drive is courageous. She is so caught up in her activism, she forgets to eat, skips school, obsesses over her speech grammar, and, essentially, refuses to allow any kind of distractions into her life as a militant climate activist.
Her rise charts key moments in recent history, like when politician Jean-Claude Juncker, the then President of the European Commission, proposes that from 2021 to 2027, every fourth euro in the EU budget of more than a trillion euros, or $1.13 trillion, will go towards fighting climate change. Would that have happened without Thunberg? The film suggests not.
Thunberg herself has admitted that most politicians don’t want to talk to her, but she doesn’t seem to care.
“We want them to talk to the scientists instead. Listen to them, because we are just repeating what they are saying, and have been saying, for decades,” she said at the time of Juncker's proposal, according to news reports.
A humane portrayal — Some of the most candid moments in Grossman's film are shot alongside French president Emmanuel Macron, who was the first world leader to ever invite Thunberg in for a meeting. Then, he asked her: “How do you find time to do homework?”
Even politicians are curious to learn the person behind the news, the real Greta, something we now get to see, too.
Thunberg's rise is not a one-sided fairytale, and the new film doesn't shy away from showing Thunberg has critics. The main criticism she seems to face is that her message isn’t clear. The film also features soundbites from United States President Donald Trump, who calls climate warnings “a hoax,” and interview footage with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who says that it’s easy for Thunberg to champion climate change “being from a first world country like Sweden.”
During the making of the film, Thunberg received death threats, and her parents demanded she doesn’t leave the house. Away from the real world drama, the online hate Thunberg faces seems insurmountable. In one scene, she lies in bed alone — a stark reminder of her singular fight, and what is at stake.
Thunberg's outward persona gives a sense that she will continue on no matter the costs. But the film reveals that Thunberg has moments of weakness and vulnerability. When Thunberg sails across the Atlantic Ocean to attend the United Nations Climate Action Summit, she is shown on the boat, steered by renowned yachtsman Boris Herrmann. There, she records a voice memo, in tears, saying: “I’m not able to do all this, it’s too much responsibility.”
But when she approached New York's harbor, hundreds (if not thousands) of people gathered to greet Thunberg — her hard work is inspirational, as much as it may cost her.
Unfinished business — Throughout the film, though, her effort feels like an uphill battle. There’s a lot of work to be done, and Thunberg seems to hate how the celebrity factor plays into her work (selfies won’t solve climate change, sorry).
Some of the film's lighter moments show Thunberg laughing with her father (who is her manager and travel chaperone) between breaks of school, speeches, and traveling. At one point she admits she hates repeating herself in speeches, demonstrating perhaps an awareness of the absurdity of the media junket.
There are also moments that reveal her as the teenager she is — FaceTiming her dogs when she’s away on work trips, for example. There are also heart-wrenching moments, like when her mother breaks down into tears in front of the camera, talking about how proud she is of her daughter.
The film details how far we and Thunberg have come. There is now overwhelming support for Thunberg across the globe. But Grossman's film also doesn't overlook how far we still have to go. If anything, this film shows how her voice cuts through the noise. She has a following to prove it (just look at her rebuttal Tweet to Trump post-election), but will her following do more than just like and retweet? Will they act?
The problem at the core of Thunberg's fight is perfectly summed up by Thunberg herself.
“Humanity sees nature as a bottomless pit of candy," she says.
Ultimately, the viewer is left to ask themselves: Are you doing enough?
Documentary I Am Greta is now streaming on Hulu.
Watch the trailer for I Am Greta, streaming on Hulu, here: