Climate Crisis, Politics, and a Generation in Revolt A Conversation with the Filmmakers of CBC’s Rebellion

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Late last year, CBC kicked off the 60th season of its flagship series, The Nature of Things with David Suzuki, with the episode ‘Rebellion’. The documentary, which first aired on Nov. 6, 2020, is a 45-minute scope of the revolt and passion of the spark behind the 2019 climate strikes, and its spontaneous shift towards the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020: our generation.

While in our separate homes in Toronto, Mark and Caitlyn Starowicz, the father-daughter duo who produced, wrote, and directed the episode, spoke to Imprint, via phone, about the process behind filming the episode, and the challenges presented by the pandemic and the never-ending news cycle of events that was the year 2020.

*Major spoilers ahead if you have not seen the episode yet.*

This episode in particular was the 60th season opener for The Nature of Things, why was it such an important story to tell?

Mark: “Well, I think it’s the single most important story of our generation, don’t you? We witnessed this extraordinary mobilization of youth around the world, beginning in 2018, and I think it took everybody by surprise. It’s a generation phenomenon, and we wanted to document it! It was a generational revolt in the background of the most important global issue of our generation. So, those two things intersected to make the lead piece in The Nature of Things.”

Caitlyn: “We wanted to make sure we weren’t making another “doom and gloom, polar bear on an iceberg” documentary. We wanted to show that there is power in people’s voices being raised, and to show that we do have the ability to stop this catastrophe. It is a catastrophe! Climate change is here, and we need system change to fight it. It’s literally happening right now and it is the survival of the human species that is on the line.”

M: “The background was a topical phenomenon. I guess, that’s why they selected it.”

How long was the production of this documentary?

C: “It took almost a year, from the beginning of filming to the air date. I guess it was about a year and half, by the time we started researching until it went on the air.”

M: “It was a close run thing, believe me! We started filming in September 2019, and we thought we finished filming in India at the end of February 2020. Just as we landed from India, the pandemic broke out and the lockdown began, so our story was changing before our eyes. We obviously had to keep filming. We couldn’t just edit what we had. The story was changing; you’ve seen the documentary, you know. So we had to go back and do many of the same characters again, but we had to do it without travelling. We didn’t want to do it on the computers because computer screens didn’t match with the cinematic quality of the 70 per cent we already filmed. So we had to do it by remote control with local crews; God that was expensive and troublesome. But the editor Carole Larsen, who is brilliant, completed it at the end of October. The last time I had seen her, in person, was September 2019. The whole thing was edited with me, her, and Caitlyn working with each other by phone or online. Editing a documentary without seeing the person you are editing with is like picking your nose through a boxing glove. She is just brilliant!”

C: “It’s a long term project, but it had its benefits because it allowed us to get a big scope of the movement from it’s beginning to where it is right now.”

A term that gets tossed a lot in the episode, and in its marketing is ‘the generation of revolt.’ What does that mean?

C: “We want to show that this is in a long line of historical protests, this is not just a blip on the radar. This is not just ‘save the planet peace and love.’ This is on par with the Vietnam War protest, or with the trans-rights protests; this is literally young people, and people of all ages, fighting for their right to a liveable planet.”

M: “I’m in my mid-70s, so I’m a veteran of the 60s. I was part of the anti-Vietnam movement, supporting the civil rights movement going back to ‘Selma days’ and things like that. And then, a period of intense activism, anyway. That was generational. It swept the generation. And then, I have to admit, I thought things went into a ‘deep-freeze’ in the 90s-2010s. What ever happened to generational social activism? And I thought, ‘my God, we have the biggest story in the world and not that much protest about it.’ The suddenly, just when you’re tempted at the despair of social change, this volcanic eruption sparked by a 15 year old girl in Sweden, just sitting in front of parliament?”

C: “And it’s not just about saving the planet, because the planet will survive long after humanity is gone. This is about saving the human species, because we are unknowingly making this planet unable to support life, so we wanted to talk about this generation. So many times, people say ‘Gen Z and Millennials don’t care about things’, and they say ‘oh they’re lazy, they don’t care about important movements.’ When in fact, this is a rebellion led by school children. I mean, Greta [Thunberg] was only 15 when she started the protest that ignited the world.”

M: “Take it from an old guy who lived through the first time this happened, this felt exactly the way it felt in the mid to late [19]60s and early [19]70s. I think people have been blind about Millennials and Gen-Z, this and intensely politicized generations. Yes they are on Twitter and Instagram, but they are still protesting! I think the social consciousness of this generation is majestic. It reminds me of the 60s. I come out of it with a renewed hope. I mean these are school children, high school children and college freshmen! They are so intensely committed, informed, they have an appreciation for things that are beyond their own economic interest. It’s just there, that fusion, that passionyou’re not going to take that away. I don’t know how it’s going to manifest itself after the pandemic. That impact is just going to continue to grow. I think this is a generational turning point. Personally, I think this is the most literate generation since the 60s. People say, ‘the length of their thoughts is the length of a Twitter feed,’ that’s not true. The New York Times circulation is approaching 14 million, The Guardian is 26 million. There is more reading going on and more social awareness than ever before. You don’t get 26 million people reading The Guardian without some of them being in their 20s. I am so filled with optimism. We are really entering interesting times.”

C: “It is a generation of revolt.”

“A generation in revolt,” indeed. It is no secret that Millennials and Gen-Z have been the punchline of boomer-jokes. Always being on our phones and relying on Google, $5 coffees, and avocado toast are just some of the items on the list of things to roast our generation about. Perhaps the revolt and anger is not caused by spending too much on *brunch*, or being on our phones constantly, but at the shoulders turned or eyes rolled every time we speak up.

This is evident, as seen in ‘Rebellion’, the first time we meet Olivia. She is outdoors preparing for a protest, and as soon as Olivia starts speaking she is interrupted by a driver’s inaudible yelling and honking his horn. Olivia’s first words on camera? She gives the driver the finger, looks directly into the camera, and says, “That’s how we do it in New York.”

[in regard to Olivia] How tough was it to actually film out in public? Did you encounter a lot of people like this trying to sabotage production?

M: “I loved that. I made sure that scene stayed in there.”

C: “Yes. It was difficult and kind of shocking at how many people would say ‘so are you going to show both sides of the climate change debate?’ And I say, well, there is not ‘both sides.’ There is rock solid science that the climate crisis is caused by humans. All scientists agree on that! I was always very taken back when people say ‘are you going to talk about how it might not be man-made essentially.’ People were just downright hostile about it, which is shocking because quite frankly, if we reduce carbon emissions, best case scenario, we save humanity. Even if, say, we were wrong and all scientists around the world were wrong, and it’s not man made, we still have a better place to live. We have a greener planet! I don’t know why people fight the reduction of carbon emissions, it’s just a win-win.”

M: “When we were in New Delhi in India interviewing Bhavreen Kandhari,  it was a little more controlled there. We didn’t have permits to film just anywhere. I asked Bhavreen if we could go to the methane sewers to film there, and she said, ‘Sure, as long as the police don’t see us.’ We went, we filmed, and that was pretty gobsmacking to see people living in those conditions. Filming the demonstration in Montreal was also a tough shoot, just in terms of the amount of people. It clocked in at 500,000. The documentary doesn’t even capture the scale of it. From downtown, which was where Greta was speaking, to 4km away, there were still people coming. It was just a river of people stretching 4km. That was a hard shoot.”

In the episode, it is implied that politics has a lot to do with people’s beliefs and what they think. From the wrap date of this production to now, the US has welcomed the Biden administration. Do you see change there, if politics has an impact on our perception and how we move forward in this battle?

M: “Politics always is an issue. But Biden’s climate agenda is revolutionary compared to anything that’s happened in the last 20 years.”

C: “Absolutely! I mean, thank goodness we have Biden in office who has already made great strides towards systemic change in terms of the climate catastrophe: rejoining the Paris Agreement was a huge step, his pledges to get off the dependency of fossil fuels and to move towards electric vehicles.”

M: “There is going to be tremendous resistance for the fossil fuel industry, we’re going to have to go through an economic transition. Because of the pandemic it has already accelerated. Probably some of us are not going to go back to an office. According to the NYT, 1/3 of the jobs will disappear and be replaced by different kinds of jobs; some better, some worse. We are living in something that is closer to the 1930s here. That’s going to lead to a norm of political polarization. First of all, the fossil fuel industry and associated industries is not going to go down without a fight. I don’t think this generation is going to  give up the fight either.”

C: “It’s still not perfect. He put a pause on fracking and he hasn’t banned fracking. But the most important thing, I think, is that we need to change politics. We need to get the leaders to change big things. One of the most shocking things I found when making this documentary is that the biggest lie told to the populous was that ‘it’s our fault.’ [Apparently] We are not recycling enough, when 70% of pollution is caused by 3% of the big industries. And they put the ownness on us when really, we need big changes from big companies.”

M: “Even if you look at Texas right now. You’ve got Texas frozen, and governors are blaming it on the ‘green new deal’, and I am sure climate deniers are saying, ‘some global warming, we are freezing!’ Where, in fact, what’s happening in Texas is significantly part of the global warming issues. Weakening jet stream, which has been predicted, and the jet stream can no longer keep the northern air currents in the northern hemisphere.”

C: “Of course, it’s great for us to recycle, and reduce our imprint, but we need big systemic change to address this problem.”

And address the problem they did. During the documentary, there is a climate action rally at Capitol Hill. However, Caitlyn and Mark weren’t at the rally; they were following activists Reverend Lennox Yearwood and Bill McKibben during a sit-in at Chase Bank in Washington, DC. And of course, the cops showed up.

What was that dynamic like, in that very moment in the bank?

M: “It was a 60s feeling. I was in a couple of sit-ins myself when I was at McGill [University] in Montreal, and we demonstrated every week in Montreal. I turned to Caitlyn and said, ‘This is what it felt like Caitlyn. This is what it felt like in 1960. I feel like I am transported in time.’ I had, in a way. Bill McKibben is really the grand-daddy of the climate movement. What had happened was we stumbled upon it. We interviewed Bill the night before, and we asked if we could follow him tomorrow. He said, “I won’t be here tomorrow, there is this secret thing going on and we are meeting in a coffee shop, and I can tell you more about it, but I don’t want to spread the word.” So with my courage and my heart I asked, “Can we come? Can we follow you there?” He sort of thought of it and then gave the okay. Aside from GreenPeace, we were the only camera crew that captured it. So they were planning to go into the bank, and we followed them. We are citizens of a foreign country, I was not looking forward to getting arrested in the United States! But, you know, journalism is journalism. We were right behind him and Yearwood, and the operation doesn’t seem to have lasted long in the documentary, but it lasted about 3 hours. Then, he is addressing the Capital crowd on his cellphone, and I’m thinking “How are we going to get the other end of this conversation? I hope somebody’s recording it at the other end.” It took a while to find a camera crew that was recording at the other end, and get the audio, so you can cut it between the two, and bring out the drama of the event. So right after the operation, we ran and caught up with Jane Fonda, who was at the Capital, and interviewed her. It was an ultra-scaled day.”

C: “It was amazing and empowering to be there! We were in there, and the police were outside, then they were storming in with zip ties for handcuffs. We kept on filming, because as a documentarian, it’s our responsibility to show people what’s happening. How people like Bill McKibben and Reverend Lennox Yearwood are literally getting arrested so they can make people in big business and government notice. One of the wildest parts is the police kept saying, “You need to leave,” and we said, “No, we won’t leave,” and eventually the police said, “Okay, in 5 minutes everyone in this room is getting arrested.” Then, McKibben and the rest of the protesters said, “What about our documentary crew?” So they all gave us safe passage out in front of the police, which was really a powerful moment.

Towards the end of the documentary, it tapers off into the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests. From a filmmaker’s point of view, and going to the 2 sets of protests and witnessing the shift in headlines, do you think the climate crisis took a backseat to the BLM movement and the pandemic?

M: “For a while. And it looked like this great rebellion was paralyzed; and it was for several weeks. Earth Day went by and it was supposed to be the culmination of the global protests and we obviously had to keep filming. We realized what it did was it alloyed it. I think the ‘all-white/European/Australian/New Zealand’ sort of demonstrations, we’re not going to see them anymore. We are going to see a transformed climate movement. And as Reverend Yearwood said, for a lot of people of colour, one thing that held them back from joining the movement was that it was all-white; it didn’t seem like a movement for them. They didn’t see themselves, even though they are the principal victims of it. So that added strength to the movement immeasurably. And when the pandemic fades, hopefully starting this summer,  I think we are going to see the ‘Greta Thunberg wave’ return with different faces, a different mixture of faces, more global, and strengthened.”

C: “I don’t think it took so much a backseat, as it did become one movement. COVID, racial equality, and climate change are all linkedwe can’t really separate them out. Because of deforestation and rising CO2 levels, habitats were destroyed and animals were brought into close contact with humans, which is one of the reasons we are exposed to COVID. And almost three times as many black Americans are affected by COVID as white Americans.”

M: “Even the vaccine distribution is skewed, globally.”

C: “Of course, in the climate crisis, people of colour are inordinately affected by climate change and they become climate refugees because rising sea-levels affect the global south first. They are all so linked that we really need intersectional justice in order to be able to fight this. The more we can all work together, the stronger we will become.”

Between the Climate Crisis protests and the BLM protests, was there a difference in passion and energy, or was it fairly consistent?

C: “It’s interesting. Passion, and also just outrage on both fronts. That is important because people should be angry; angry that black people are being killed and angry that our habitat is being destroyed. It’s time for use to stand up and it’s time for us to really take this seriously. I think the younger generation is really doing a great job of that, about really saying that ‘we are not going to take the status quo anymore,’ and, ‘we need to find a new way in doing things, we are not just going to go back to how it was before COVID, or any of these movements.’ One of the positive things I saw, which was also addressed by Jerome Foster who is great in the doc[umentary], is that in the climate protests there were not as many people of colour, but now that these movements have really joined forces, he is seeing himself represented in the crowd, and it’s people of all racial backgrounds and ethnicities coming together. I think that was a really positive aspect of that.”

M: “In a way, the most dramatic chapter is the last chapter. It was interesting, we set out to cover a global phenomenon and we encountered another global phenomenon, the pandemic. And for a while we thought our story was dead. Not in terms of climate issues, but the rebellion is dead; it turned out it wasn’t. The climate rebellion changed into the climate justice issue. It was a bumpy and scary ride, but it ended up strengthening the documentary.”

You can watch ‘Rebellion’ on CBC Gem.

https://gem.cbc.ca/media/the-nature-of-things/season-60/episode-1/38e815a-01356eb4

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