Alex Harrold was a Visiting Scholar on the John Locke Institute gap year programme in Oxford. In September he will begin reading History at Robinson Colege, University of Cambridge.
It is unsurprising that I’ve been getting a little restless during these lockdowns. I understand why lockdowns are vital; my mum is going out to work for the NHS six days a week. But still, being stuck on a sofa is not what the average 19-year-old looks forward to doing on his gap year. I even find myself envying my mum. At least she gets to leave the house.
With TV being my principal source of amusement, I quickly ticked off any film I’d ever wanted to watch, Casablanca included. With my film bucket list empty, I scoured the TV listings for things which, ordinarily, most teenage boys would never have considered watching. It was at that moment when I came across the documentary, I am Greta.
"Her response has a religious quality to it. This is her calling."
What I saw was a well-crafted and powerful documentary. Its quality is largely due to the lead character, Greta Thunberg. For someone whose Asperger’s syndrome can get in the way of understanding emotions, Greta has the remarkable gift of being able to arouse intense feelings in others. As I watched Greta clear her throat before giving one of her many emotive speeches, I was struck by her steely gaze, eyebrows pointing down and in, nostrils flaring in defiance. She quickly converted me to her cause.
Greta’s ability to capture the imagination of so many young people comes across in this intimate portrait. We saw the news coverage of the ‘school strike for climate’ spreading contagiously around the globe. But for all the support Greta garners for her cause, this documentary will also endear people to Greta as a person. We see a young teenager who struggles to bear the weight of responsibility on her shoulders. That responsibility is to take drastic action against the threat of climate change. And as Greta so often tells us as she travels around the globe to rally her supporters and to mobilise cobwebbed politicians, that threat is an existential one.
It is ironic, then, that while Greta is fighting against the looming death of our species, she is also having to deal with death threats arriving through her family’s letterbox. But again, Greta’s stoic response to this is admirable; she thinks it would be cowardly of her to stop her campaigning in the face of the risk to her, when climate change poses a far more significant risk to a far greater number of people. Her response has a religious quality to it. This is her calling. I wonder whether her parents feel the same way.
While Greta’s mum seems to be relegated to the part of an extra in the documentary, Greta’s watchful father, Svante, plays a crucial supporting role. He makes her packed lunches, always vegan. He encourages her to rest when she is agonising over the grammar of her next speech. And he accompanies her to all the global events she attends, providing a vital link to normality and family life. This is not so much a solo Greta show, but rather an effective double act.
Her critics are also given a voice in the ninety minutes. Their fault-finding largely revolves around the line, “It’s odd to call her a climate hero when she can’t give examples of what to do”. But I think this criticism totally misses the point of what Greta symbolises. She is no politician; she doesn’t wield power, and nor does she want that. Instead, she is the drummer, striking a beat to keep people in step, schoolchildren and politicians alike.
"She is no politician; she doesn’t wield power, and nor does she want that."
When it comes to the politicians, Greta Thunberg couldn’t be any more different. The amusing awkwardness comes across in the footage of her standing with nattily attired heads of state. The ornamentation of their offices and palaces present a piquant contrast to the austere, plainly dressed Greta. What also comes across is Greta’s mistrust of politicians. When politicians organise their photoshoots with her, what is the photo for? She doubts that it is a meaningful sign of commitment.
Her wariness seems to be validated in one scene where she is standing in conversation with Emmanuel Macron. The French President has his arms firmly crossed. Even a school child can read his dismissive body language. But perhaps the moment which typifies her disapproval of many of those in power is played out in a meeting of the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels. Greta gives her speech, and hands the floor to Jean-Claude Juncker. The then President of the European Commission, almost laughably, begins his monotone speech by suggesting that we should synchronise all toilet flushes across Europe to save energy. At this, Greta removes her translation headphones in dismay. Her facial expression silently screams at the viewer that when time is running out to save the planet, such piecemeal suggestions won’t cut it.
This documentary therefore has a dual focus. There is the wider climate threat, and there is also a poignant depiction of a young girl dealing with her new life. The documentary’s release date, in the middle of a global pandemic, is also interesting. Indeed, COVID-19 has healed both issues. Not only has the reduction in travel and production emissions given the planet a much-needed breath of fresh air, but it has also given the young climate activist a chance to stay at home. Greta has been able to return to normal, to her family, and her two dogs, Moses and Roxy. Unlike many of us, Greta must be enjoying her ‘new normal’.
It surprised me that I felt I should write about this. I have never reviewed anything before. Nor have I ever been on a climate strike. But after watching I am Greta, her rousing speeches and the sympathy her personal struggle evokes prompted me to act by writing this. Whether you believe that climate change is the biggest challenge ever to face humanity, or simply God hugging the world more tightly, you cannot doubt the inspiring power of Greta.