In 2008, while working on the climate change polemic The Age Of Stupid, filmmaker Emily James began to wonder how the problem might be addressed. ‘I think a lot of people go through the same cycle of seeing the problem, doing a little research, realising it’s a gargantuan problem and then getting quite disillusioned, like it’s insurmountable,’ she says.
A few phone calls later, however, and the cycle began to crack. Campaigners from Plane Stupid wanted James to capture them blocking the runway at Stansted, and later another group asked her to film them boarding a coal train to unload its cargo.
‘It was inspiring seeing people who weren’t succumbing to that sense of being overwhelmed,’ she says. ‘Their reaction was to do something really bold and dramatic. That excited me. I immediately wanted to tell their story.’
Over the following year, a team of camera operators covered protests, stunts and solidarity camps, amassing 200 hours of footage. This has been whittled down into an ebullient 90-minute documentary that tracks a group of mostly young activists as they bring media, political and public attention to the myriad causes of climate change – from coal-fired power stations and ever‑expanding airports to investment banks and government offices. The film premiered at the Sheffield Documentary Festival in July and is currently visiting cinemas nationwide. The leap of faith paid off.
Behind this success lies the work of motivated volunteers and more than 400 ‘crowd-funders’, a broad base of supporters who responded to calls to finance the film with donations of £10 upwards. Their contribution has been vital.
‘My initial plan was to make a short reel, take it to broadcasters and get a commission,’ says James, who has worked in television for more than a decade. The cynicism of mainstream producers forced her to reconsider the approach.
‘There wasn’t a great deal of interest in the sympathetic portrait that I wanted to make – only if it was done in a derisive way,’ she explains. ‘The word “objective” was thrown around, but actually to mean “critical”. I don’t think they’re the same thing and wasn’t willing take the film in that direction.’
For James, the request indicated prejudices against non‑mainstream political agitators. ‘If I’d wanted to make the film with an African young persons’ choral group, nobody would have been talking about “objectivity” in the same sense.’
The team decided to go independent, applying for support from ecological foundations and film funds. The secretive nature of filming meant that the highly public activity of crowd-funding could only be pursued during the post-production process, which allowed the team time to consider their approach and design an inclusive system.
The Age of Stupid was a forerunner for crowd-funding, but stipulated a minimum investment of £5,000. Investors were then remunerated from box-office takings and sales, meaning that recouping expenditures became a necessary goal for the filmmakers. The Just Do It team wanted to try something new.
‘We felt that, given the strong anti-capitalist message of the film, we would prefer to do something that was more widely democratic,’ explains James, ‘so we went for straight donations.’
The plan has worked – to an extent. Fundraising efforts have helped build a strong support base for the film, with donors becoming local champions, spreading the word and requesting cinema screenings. There’s enough in the coffers to cover expenses and get speakers to the films.
After the initial theatrical run, the aim is to offer free screenings and downloads to get the film to as many viewers as possible. More funds are needed to cover the leg-work involved.
‘We raised a lot less money [than The Age of Stupid], which is a little frustrating,’ James concedes. ‘People struggle to get their head around the idea that they should put their hand in their pocket so that others can see a film for free.’
She is philosophical about this struggle, however, seeing it as the start of a long process. ‘It’s one of the inherent contradictions of trying to do things that question and undermine the capitalist models that we’re used to – while still functioning in a capitalist structure that we can’t easily escape.’
While there may still be a few creases to iron out with the format, other filmmakers are picking up the idea with gusto. The Real Social Network, a similarly themed documentary covering the recent protests against student fees, is one of many already in post‑production.
Originally born of necessity, the funding model behind Just Do It can be seen as reflecting the ethos of the project: challenging the status quo, asserting democratic freedoms to speak to power and putting politics before profit. n
Just Do It is showing in select cinemas nationwide. For up to date screening information, and to find out how you can get your local cinema involved, go to www.justdoitfilm.com
Siobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.