In 1971, a group of friends sailed into a nuclear test zone, and their protest captured the world's imagination. That ragtag bunch of Vancouver-based “eco-freaks” soon went on to be famous all around the world as the organisation Greenpeace, as the group improvised their way into starting a global movement.
That global movement really hit home for me as a young ‘un when it bought an act of terrorism to my hometown. The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, codenamed Operation Satanic (AKA Opération Satanique), was a bombing operation by the "action" branch of the French foreign intelligence services, the Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure (DGSE), carried out on July 10, 1985. During the operation, two operatives sank the flagship of the Greenpeace fleet, the Rainbow Warrior in the port of Auckland, on its way to a protest against a planned French nuclear test in Mururoa. Fernando Pereira, a photographer and dad, drowned on the sinking ship.
France initially denied responsibility, but two French agents were captured by New Zealand Police and charged with arson, conspiracy to commit arson, willful damage, and murder. As the truth came out, the scandal resulted in the resignation of the French Defence Minister Charles Hernu. On the twentieth anniversary of the sinking, it was revealed that the French president François Mitterrand had personally authorised the bombing. The act of terrorism horrified New Zealand but also galvanised our love of the Greenpeace organisation. It’s a group dear to many of our hearts, and in the era of climate change denial and the like, is still as important today as it was in the early seventies.
But onto tonight’s documentary, HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD. Largely told through 16mm footage from a vast organisational archive of some 1,500 film cans that this documentary just begins to tap, Jerry Rothwell’s film focuses primarily - and effectively - on the human dynamics of the group, particularly the role of late leader Bob Hunter. Hunter was a Vancouver Sun reporter whose intense interest in environmental issues landed him at the centre of the original group, which was made up of hippies, draft dodgers, the spiritually enlightened, fishermen and freaks. The name “Greenpeace” was designed more for writing on banners than anything else at first, as the loose crew of activists planned a disruption of President Nixon’s planned five-megaton nuclear explosion test on the Alaskan island of Amchitka. Though the test happened in late 1971 anyway, the eco freaks focused so much negative attention on it that the U.S. cancelled all further such activities there.
Buoyed by their early success and inspired by marine scientist Paul Spong (who had been astonished by his findings in researching orca intelligence), they decided to direct a new campaign against offenders in the appallingly unlawful world of whale hunting. When their crew of 13 finally found some Russian whaling vessels off the Northern California coast (after consulting the I Ching as to whether they should give up the search), they immediately realised these seagoing “slaughterhouses” were flaunting international law by killing undersized and immature whales. The dramatic footage shot on this and subsequent voyages kicked off the whole Save the Whales movement still so much in evidence today.
As the group’s profile rose and new chapters emerged around the world, egos started to fly in the face of Hunter’s original direction, and so too the infighting and disillusionment that informs the latter part of this super compelling doco. Hunter, who returned to his career in environmental journalism with a new, heightened profile before dying of cancer in 2005, found himself caught between others’ conflicting notions of Greenpeace’s mission. Today his second-in-commands control the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and an environmental corporate-consulting firm, and it appears that the original organisation is back on steady feet.
My favourite part of the film is the aforementioned old footage of the group in its early days, which seemed full of fun and excitement and positivity that even the “little guy” can make a difference. These were the pioneers who defined the modern green movement in action, and in these times, an effective call to arms if ever there was one.
HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD premieres Thursday 15 June at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel
Click here for the trailer
Click here to remote record