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Earth mothers: Saving the environment one film at a time

‘I haven’t forgotten the intensity of feelings of teenagehood, the vulnerabilities, the volatile emotions, the longings,’ says Potter, whose film Ginger & Rosa tells the story of two 16-year-olds coming of age against the planet-threatening backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Who knew that Sally Potter – the writer-director of art-house films including Orlando and Yes – and Daryl Hannah, the actress best known for Splash and Roxanne , could have so much in common? Both are soft-spoken, yet impressively articulate. (I'd expected that from Potter, but confess had underestimated Hannah.) Both make their ideals manifest in their lives. And both have new films that deal with climate change – starkly in the case of Greedy Lying Bastards , a rabble-rousing documentary that Hannah executive-produced, about climate-change deniers; and obliquely in Potter's Ginger & Rosa , a coming-of-age drama set in 1962, when the nightmare of nuclear annihilation loomed over its 16-year-old English protagonists, much as an environmental apocalypse concerns us now.

In Potter's film, the nuclear threat is both background to and metaphor for not only the sociocultural explosions of the early sixties, but also the personal one that engulfs Ginger and Rosa (Elle Fanning and Alice Englert, respectively) as their love for one another – platonic but intense – is tested by adult desires. Though it's arguably Potter's most accessible movie, she remains a master of mood, drawing viewers into her artfully shot, often wordless scenes. She observes her characters keenly, but resists judging them, even when they do, as she puts it, "very difficult things."

Potter was in Toronto this week, and I hosted two events with her: an In Conversation With interview at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and an invitational screening made up mostly of young women. At the latter, Potter's refusal to judge seemed to blow the audience members' minds. They asked her question after question about what they were "supposed to" feel about Rosa's decisions or Ginger's dad (Alessandro Nivola, in full snake-charming mode), and each of her answers was a lesson in compassion.

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"I haven't forgotten the intensity of feelings of teenagehood, the vulnerabilities, the volatile emotions, the longings," Potter told me in a separate interview. At 63, she's naturally beautiful, with milky skin, pale-blond hair, and the interesting black clothes of a lifelong artist. (Before she became a director, she was a dancer, choreographer, musician, and performance artist.) Her way of speaking – musically, rhythmically, but with an underlying toughness and passion – lulls listeners into an almost fugue state of openness.

"I'm not sure I feel that different now," she continues. "I don't feel I've grown out of that passionate younger self. I've added experience to it. I know that states of emotion don't last forever. But the longings, the rawness, are things I've had to keep alive to do the work that I do." To her, empathy is totally fundamental if you're going to make a film that resonates – "especially with the secret lives of others," she says. "Because most of us walk around in a facade, because it's too dangerous to reveal what's going on inside. I want to make films where people feel that some aspect of their hidden life is up on screen."

Though the cast of Ginger & Rosa contains a number of interesting adults (Mad Men 's Christina Hendricks as Ginger's mum; Oliver Platt and Annette Bening as family friends), Potter especially relished working with Englert (daughter of the director Jane Campion) and Fanning (younger sister of Dakota, she's already a movie veteran, though she was only 14 when this film was shot). "I loved the opportunity to give them the respect that I remember craving, to reach for their intelligence," Potter says. "I often think talent is overestimated. These girls worked hard – they put in the time, they were willing to go deep, and to be open and undefended.

"They were also adorable," she adds. "I loved them, I just loved them. I hugged them a lot, and then when we worked, I would push them really far. And they loved it. I did, too."

Potter grew up in London, and was appointed to the Order of the British Empire in 2012. Her late parents – her father was a poet and interior designer; her mother, a music teacher – were atheists and anarchists. "Not bomb-throwing ones, but people who believed in independent thought," Potter says. With "an almost cruelly open-eyed acknowledgement about how bad things are for many people in the world," they taught her to question authority, to appreciate the value of a poem or piece of music, and "to reach for the things that are really true of people." From an early age, they left her alone to direct her own life; at 12, she was on the streets in her school uniform distributing "Ban the Bomb" leaflets.

"People now might think they were unprotective," Potter says. "But it was good training for being an independent film director. I remember as a teenager feeling very underestimated [by many adults]. Not just about my emotions, but also about my serious philosophical and political concerns. So I recognize in the younger generation their terrors about climate change, and their anger that older generations pursued a profit motive at the expense of the long-term future of our species."

That profit motive is also what Greedy Lying Bastards wants to expose and educate people about. Written, directed and narrated by Craig Rosebraugh, a lifelong activist, it accuses companies including ExxonMobil and Koch Industries of spending vast amounts of money to deliberately spread misinformation about climate change and protect their own interests at the expense of the planet.

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Hannah, 52, was a logical executive producer. Her weekly vlog, dhlovelife.com, is dedicated to causes from protecting the environment to ending child slavery. When she started noticing climate shifts in her own back yard in the Colorado Rockies, "my first step was to bring my lifestyle in line with my beliefs," she said in a phone interview last week. (Though she speaks in a dreamy near-whisper, she communicates paragraphs of information, with topic sentences and supporting arguments.) She switched her house to solar power and her car to biofuels. "But as the crisis accelerated, I had to become more vocal."

Over the past decade, she has become a near-permanent advocate, making speeches about climate change at the U.N., and spending more time at protests than on sets. She gets arrested a lot: the first time in 2006, when she was forcibly removed from a walnut tree to protest the sale to developers of the South Central Los Angeles Community Farm, the largest urban farm in the United States; and most recently in February, while protesting in front of the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline.

"That first time, I'd just gone to the farm to make a film for my website," Hannah says. "I was so moved by their struggle that I decided to stand in solidarity with them. I never imagined I'd end up living there for almost a month, showering outdoors in a cornfield in South Central L.A., and climbing that tree, when I have vertigo."

She laughs. "But I do think civil disobedience is an important tool to affect change. Historically it's been crucial to the civil rights' movement, the women's suffragette movement and apartheid. While it's not fun to spend time in a county jail, it's something I believe in."

Interestingly, Fox News anchor Sean Hannity offered to bail her out in the February arrest – she was scheduled to appear on his program that night to promote Greedy Lying Bastards , even though Fox News is name-checked in the doc as an egregious climate-change denier. "I always do the Fox shows," Hannah says. "I try to stay away from polarizing dialogues, and approach these pundits from a point of common sense. The best you can do is put the information out there, make it digestible and palatable, and maybe some of it will get to some people who've never heard it before. I really think that distracting ourselves with argument is part of the thing that's keeping us all from making any progress."

Hannah doesn't hesitate, however, to call the behaviour of the climate-change deniers "criminal."

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"They have the science, they have the World Bank report – one of the most terrifying climate reports I've yet read – that said we need to get off fossil fuels immediately," she says. "And yet they still fund these denial campaigns. When people lie on purpose for their advertisers' or donors' agenda, that is criminal behaviour. That's why the name of the film is apt."

The title certainly ups the urgency, compared to that of the last popular climate-change doc, An Inconvenient Truth . "We don't have time for pussyfooting around," Hannah says. "We've got to take action. Being a public figure is not something that comes naturally to me. Though I'm an actor, I'm not an extrovert. But I feel compelled to act on this [climate change]. It's not comfortable for me, it's not fun, I don't get paid for it. But this is where we are as a species. We simply have to fight the fossil-fuel industry. It's challenging, because they're the wealthiest corporations in the history of mankind. It's a David-and-Goliath struggle."

She takes a deep breath. "But there are more of us than there are of them. We've got numbers on our side." And, like Potter, passion.

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