Messy humanity of the planet’s saviours: conflict, drama inside XR

Messy humanity of the planet’s saviours: conflict, drama inside XR


Change is messy, and human beings inevitably come into conflict even when fighting on the same side, say filmmakers Maia Kenworthy and Elena Sanchez Bellot.

Their new documentary Rebellion – about to screen in Australia – illustrates the point perfectly, if painfully: they talked their way into three years of inside access with climate warrior group Extinction Rebellion. They captured on film a tense, angry showdown between father and daughter, co-founder Roger Hallam and his daughter, youth co-ordinator Savannah Lovelock.

Extinction Rebellion in Trafalgar Square: a moment from the documentary Rebellion.Credit:Maia Kenworthy

Lovelock tells her father he has denied young people agency and voice within the organisation. Hallam responds she may need to “walk her own path”, prompting Lovelock to storm out of the room, shouting: “F— you, f— you!“.

“It was a really conscious decision to include the tensions, because that was the reality of what was going on,” says Bellot. “It’s messy, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go for it. We really wanted to show a bit of humanity.

“Activists, especially environmental activists, get a bad rap for being so self-righteous and always knowing what’s best. But no, they’re all just figuring it out, and they’re all imperfect human beings.”

Extinction Rebellion environmental activist organiser Roger Hallam.Credit:Ollie Millington/Getty Images

Extinction Rebellion, XR for short, formed in 2018 and became a global movement after deploying non-violent civil disobedience to bring London to a standstill with protests.

But more tensions emerged in the documentary over XR failing to adequately address “climate justice”: to connect climate action to tackling global inequality.

While the group centres its attention on emission reductions, critics in the documentary say that XR needs to also focus on racism and colonialism, and also draw attention to the poor countries supplying minerals for batteries, metals for turbines, cobalt for solar panels and child labour exploited to get those materials.

Filmmaker Maia Kenworthy in action making the Rebellion documentary.Credit:Maia Kenworthy

XR is planning its next action for September 10. British-born Kenworthy says the group has begun to make that connection.

“That discussion was always happening on the inside, it’s just how public facing are you with it? They were concerned about it alienating certain people, but then of course you end up alienating other people.

“[But] it’s important to remember Extinction Rebellion is not the whole climate movement; it’s much bigger than that.”

Rebellion also follows the extraordinary transition of environmental lawyer and diplomat Farhana Yamin from being unsure about taking part in Extinction Rebellion protests to supergluing her hands to the Shell headquarters in London. She has since left the group to forge a new coalition to demand climate justice.

Hallam and Lovelock have each left XR, too, and have found a rapprochement in their father-daughter relationship, even though their styles of activism are remarkably different.

Hallam is accused by numerous other XR members of “blind fanaticism about disruption”, including his thwarted plan to fly drones over Heathrow airport’s exclusion zone. “If you’re not in prison, you’re not in resistance … you keep going until you’re banged up, or you’re dead,” says Hallam.

Lovelock, meanwhile, confides to the filmmakers about her burnout – a plight that has inflicted many climate activists, particularly the young.

“We had some moments when [XR] people would [say], ‘Hang on, why are you filming this?’” says Kenworthy.

“As soon as people realised, ‘Oh, they’re not trying to get a quick story, leak this to the press, whatever, they’re genuinely just trying to document what’s happening and are interested’, they were fine with us capturing it all.”

Can XR be credited for the British Parliament legislating for net zero emissions by 2050?

“Definitely,” says Kenworthy. “Farhana, who’s been close to the climate change process for years, being part of the United Nations, strongly feels Extinction Rebellion and civil disobedience cast this issue into public consciousness, letting the Prime Minister know this was an important matter people care about. It was a big catalyst in finally making it happen.”

XR co-founder Gail Bradbrook is still awaiting trial over allegedly smashing a plate-glass window in a government building in Westminster during a 2019 protest. “She’s definitely facing prison time,” says Bellot.

The British Parliament this year passed the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, imposing tougher penalties for such disruptions designed to impact on the economy. Kenworthy and Bellot say the law is undemocratic.

“To the general public, the [new law] often gets sold to as a way of dealing with groups like XR,” says Bellot.

“But actually, the police already have laws in place to deal with groups like XR … The [government] is using [XR] as an excuse to massively expand police powers. People need to realise that, even if they’re not on the street breaking the law, it’s going to affect them.”

Rebellion screens at the Castlemaine Documentary Festival on July 3.

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