Bob Hunter always knew the founding of Greenpeace would make a great movie: A ragtag group of eco-freaks, hippies and other radicals sets off in a rickety fishing boat to stop a nuclear bomb test, then finds its true raison d'être when they decide (well, Hunter decides) to save the whales.
Convinced of this filmic potential, Hunter – a journalist-turned-activist-turned-journalist again – tried to make it happen repeatedly. He wrote scripts, sent them off. With his eye on a Hollywood feature, he even tried positioning it as a love story.
It never happened. But now, exactly 10 years after Hunter's death, his story is coming to the big screen in a powerful documentary that surely tells the story better than any Hollywood romcom could. And, in a beautiful twist, Hunter not only dominates the film onscreen, but is the source of its narration – and even its footage.
How to Change the World, which had its Canadian premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto last weekend, opens the DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver on Thursday night.
"In many ways the film was, I guess you could say, kind of the dream child of my father's," says his daughter Emily Hunter, who worked as a researcher on the film and also appears in it, having followed in her father's environmental-activism footsteps. "He really wanted to tell the original story of Greenpeace … the story of an ordinary group of people doing the extraordinary."
The documentary recounts the early days of Greenpeace, beginning with its birth in 1971, as Hunter, then a columnist for the Vancouver Sun, headed off from Vancouver in a boat with Paul Watson (who went on to found the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society) and others to try to stop the testing of a nuclear bomb at Amchitka, a tiny island off Alaska. And then its growth, under Hunter, who wound up quitting journalism for activism with a vision to create an ecology movement on the same scale as the civil-rights movement, the women's movement, the peace movement. The film documents the campaign to save the whales, the baby seals – and finally the fractures in the original group as the organization experiences growth beyond any its members' wildest dreams.
That growth was in large part a result of Hunter's early understanding of the power of the media; his concept of "mind bombs" – essentially what we would call "going viral" today. It wasn't just important to stop the whalers from harpooning their docile prey, but to catch it on camera – and show the evidence to an outraged world.
"Bob always recognized that you can change the world through a camera much easier than with a gun and much more effectively," says Watson in the documentary.
The story unfolds through archival footage, present-day interviews and text from Hunter's books and journals, read in voiceover by actor Barry Pepper.
Hunter's writing is candid, beautiful, poetic. (Sample: "Image is everything. The boat is an icon. A mind bomb sailing across an electronic sea into the front rooms of the masses.")
But it's the archival footage (which makes up about 70 per cent of the documentary) that gives this film its great strength – in particular never-before-seen footage discovered in the Greenpeace archive in Amsterdam.
Director Jerry Rothwell was doing some research there for a different project when he found the material – dozens of canisters of footage that had been shot during those early Greenpeace missions, fuelled by Hunter's understanding of the power of an image.
"Nobody had even opened the lid on these canisters," explains Emily Hunter. "It was amazing; this kind of treasure trove that Jerry was able to find.
"And in a way," she continues, "I could see my dad really had the idea of telling this film early on, because it was like kind of a home movie he was behind or directing or producing from the very get-go. … So, it really is a treasure trove to have discovered this and be able to [take] kind of a vérité approach to the film that is really a 40-, 45-year-old story now."
The footage is astonishing: candid moments from those early missions, from the mundane to the transformational to the graphically gut-wrenching, such as footage of the group watching a harpooned sperm whale dying in the Pacific and realizing with shock and distress that it was undersized.
"That's a goddamn baby whale, for Christ's sake," Hunter cries.
From London, where he lives, Rothwell explains that he has "cut back a bit" on the graphic footage in this cut of the film. "I think it's difficult because you want to understand what's happening and in a way the brutality of it, but you also don't want that to [cross] the line. It's a really complicated line. … The unfortunate side of the mind bomb is that sometimes the drama of those images obscures the debate, obscures the issues."
At the core of the story is not the environmentalism but the messy group dynamics of those early Greenpeace days. "I'm really interested in how groups come together, how individuals can change and what happens to power within those groups as they grow," Rothwell says.
But this documentary, which feels way more edge-of-your-seat than staid historical document, seems destined to spark some new interest in Greenpeace – and environmental activism in general.
"He'd be absolutely over the moon that it's actually happening," says Hunter, about her father. (Globe and Mail reporter Justine Hunter is also Bob Hunter's daughter; she does not appear in the film.) "And there's something serendipitous about it all: that it is the 10th anniversary of his passing and finally the story is being told; I think being told at the right moment, where people are kind of ready to listen to it."
For Emily Hunter, 30, watching the film is "an emotional roller coaster" and she is unable to stay in the theatre for the entire screening.
"I'm mostly crying … but it's also such a blessing. I feel like he's alive again for those nearly two hours on the screen. And I feel like people are going to have a relationship with my father again and connect with him again. That hasn't happened for over 10 years. And in that way I'm calling it his last mind bomb."
How to Change the World opens DOXA in Vancouver on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Vancouver Playhouse, with a second screening May 2 at the Vancity Theatre (12 p.m.). The film is slated for theatrical release later this year. DOXA runs through May 10; for more information see doxafestival.ca.
Five DOXA picks:
Norwegian filmmaker Tonje Hessen Schei's dark examination of combat by remote control feels ominously topical given recent events.
May 9, 2 p.m. (Cinematheque)
Running on Climate
Filmmaker Robert Alstead follows Victoria-based climatologist Andrew Weaver on the campaign trail as he runs for the B.C. Green Party in the 2013 provincial election.
May 2, 5:45 p.m. (Vancity)
Director Luc Chamberland looks at the life and work of the acclaimed Canadian graphic novelist Seth.
May 1, 7 p.m. (Cinematheque) and May 4, 3:30 p.m. (Vancity)
I Think You're Totally Wrong: A Quarrel
The world premiere of James Franco's film adaptation of the book by David Shields and Caleb Powell documents a messy, days-long quarrel in the Cascades.
May 3, 6:30 p.m. (Vancity)
DOXA closes with a tribute to legendary U.S. documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, who died in March. Iris is his final film.
May 10, 7 p.m. (Playhouse) and 9 p.m. (Vancity)