How to think about blowing up a pipeline
A Q&A with the director of the provocative new eco-thriller.
Below you’ll find an interview I conducted with Daniel Goldhaber, the director and co-writer of “How to Blow up a Pipeline,” a climate thriller out now in theaters.
I want to note how zeitgeisty this film is at the moment. I just came back from a trip crisscrossing the United Kingdom and climate debates were thick in the air. This might be because a disproportionate number of my British friends are climate activists. But I also noticed it come up in everyday conversations with with non-activists. And in just one issue of The Guardian — I like to pick up paper copies of newspapers when traveling — I saw three stories discussing climate activist tactics. While I was there the Extinction Rebellion held a series of protests in London, which were in notable in part because they represented the group’s move away from disruptive action. Meanwhile a judge handed down what activists say mark the longest sentences for peaceful climate protest in British history — giving two demonstrators who scaled a bridge and stopped traffic for 40 hours prison sentences of three years and two years, seven months each. “You have to be punished for the chaos you caused and to deter others from copying you,” the judge said. We’re at a critical juncture, and this movie is coming at just the right time.
Here’s my article, published at MSNBC:
The new indie film “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” can be seen as a kind of heist movie, complete with tension, twists and a precarious conspiracy to get an illicit job done. But instead of being driven by a desire for cash, the characters are motivated by a desire for social change.
That theory of change is outlined in a 2021 book that inspired the movie and shares its name. Swedish scholar Adreas Malm wrote the book to persuade climate activists to consider embracing property destruction and sabotage as an activist tactic. Malm makes the case by elucidating how traditional peaceful protest has grown enormously in recent years yet failed to achieve results that have any hope of warding off catastrophic climate change. Sabotaging the fossil fuel industry, Malm argues, will make it less profitable and will make mainstream climate advocacy look moderate by comparison.
The movie dramatizes Malm’s argument by following eight people who come together to try to blow up an oil pipeline. On the surface, the tension is about whether they’ll be thwarted or even kill themselves in the process. But underneath, tension also lies in the audience’s receptivity to the characters’ plan: Is this a justifiable course of action?
Naturally, the book and the movie have sparked spirited discussion and criticism across the political spectrum — Fox News held a panel slamming the movie as violent propaganda. But it has also sparked internal debate on the left. When I discussed the movie with a group of progressive friends in a bar after a screening, people were split over what the movie was trying to say and whether it was defensible.
I called up Daniel Goldhaber, the film’s director and one of its three co-writers, to discuss how the movie came into being, what it means and what he thinks of Fox’s tirades.
Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows:
Zeeshan Aleem: So to start us off, can you just tell me about how you landed on the idea to make this movie?
Daniel Goldhaber: It came on the heels of about a year of Covid lockdown and Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the insurrection on Jan. 6, the apocalyptic fires in L.A. in the winter of 2020. There’s a moment where I was feeling extremely politically powerless and also having not really actively worked for a year trying to figure out if I’m going to keep being a filmmaker and what’s the purpose in that.
One of my co-writers, Jordan Sjol, is an academic, and he’s always talked about wanting to adapt a work of academic theory for film. Jordan sent the book “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” to me and co-writer Ariela Barer, and we read it. I think this idea of adapting something that delivered literally on the title was an immediate point of inspiration. And part of it was this idea of living in a moment in which there is so much injustice and so many problems in the world and yet fixing them has never felt slower or more logjammed. Especially when it comes to the question of climate change, in which there is no time to afford a logjam, we felt there was an ample opportunity to make a film and tell a story that wasn’t just an exciting thriller but that also could really beg this question about what kind of tactics are going to be necessary to actually solve the climate crisis.
Aleem: Did you talk to Malm about the movie, and how did you aim to be true to a book that was of a fundamentally different genre, in that the book was nonfiction and the film was fiction?
Goldhaber: Our approach is very much predicated on this idea that stories are just ideas structured into narrative and that there is a political identity at the heart of any story. That’s just the nature of the beast. And half the time when you’re making a movie, a huge part of the writing process is trying to figure out what the heck you’re trying to say.
With this, it was like somebody handed us the argument and then we just had to figure out how to dramatize it. And that process was all about finding these stories in the real world, doing the research to figure out what kinds of people have been radicalized toward acts like this and then figuring out a way to create a diverse enough array of those stories and people that we felt like the film could kind of capture a kaleidoscopic array of the different kinds of people who were involved in the climate fight.
You’re not just illustrating Andreas’ point by showing the different kinds of things that radicalized people, but also you’re giving audiences a firsthand experience of the different kinds of lives that have been destroyed by the fossil fuel industry. We very much presented that to Andreas, that this is going to be a movie that is going to be dramatizing his ideas but that it’s also going to be pushing back on them more. We wanted to include some of the criticism to the book, because that’s where drama comes from. And he was very excited about that — he immediately sent us some of his favorite articles critical of the book and said, “I think you should be thinking about these.”
I think that the problem in leftist spaces to an extent is that these texts only exist for a somewhat niche and limited audience. And the whole point of this movie was to bring this conversation into the mainstream.
Aleem: Do you or the movie take a position on whether or not property destruction and sabotage in the name of fighting climate change is justifiable or desirable?
Goldhaber: I think that the movie takes the position that these eight characters see this as an act of self-defense. And I think that there’s a difference between the position the movie is taking and what the movie hopes to provoke as a conversation.
There is a widespread understanding that if somebody is holding a gun at you with an intent to kill you, you have a right to take that gun away and disassemble it. And I think that when you look at not just what science is predicting for the climate crisis but that the crisis as we have already experienced it — the drought, the fires, the extreme weather, the famine, the loss of life that we’ve already seen — due to climate change has been significant. And that’s only going to escalate. So on some level, the fossil fuel industry has a gun to the head of the world. And the question the movie is asking is: Do we have a right to take that away from them and disassemble it to prevent more harm? That is fundamentally the moral question of our time.
Aleem: I assume you saw that Fox News held a segment on your story, worrying that Gen Z is being spoon-fed propaganda and that people are using the movie to champion violence in the climate movement. What’s your response?
Goldhaber: I think that my response is to question the use of the word “violence.” And I would question whether or not an oil refinery that exists in a community, that destroys that community, that gives the people in that community cancer, that poisons the water, that blights the land is an act of violence. That’s the question the movie is posing. It’s not trying to radicalize people toward violence. It’s trying to ask people to recognize the violence that exists in the world due to the existence of fossil fuels.
Aleem: Some of the characters in the film envision their actions as justified out of rationale of self-defense and even hope that it will serve as a legal defense. It’s hard to imagine that passing muster in a court today to shield oneself from being charged with destruction of property. But there is an ideological and moral coherence to it. Are these characters naive or knowingly hoping to will a new kind of world into existence?
Goldhaber: Every revolutionary has been called naive at the beginning of a revolution. One of the foundational arguments of the book is that virtually every social justice movement in history has engaged in property destruction, sabotage, the disruption of civil society. You can look at how the suffragettes burned buildings and destroyed paintings. The gay rights movement was started by a riot. I think it’s less of whether or not these characters are being naive and more about these characters looking to the historical record and looking at the need for change and asking whether or not an act like this is simply necessary.
Part of what the movie recognizes is that, whether or not the characters are naive, that if we are going to see a successful necessity defense [argument], that’s only going to be because the social and political will exists for that change to happen in our judiciary. To an extent, part of what the movie is also aiming to do is create a social and political will and understanding of where necessity defense would even come from, what that would even be. That’s the same thing that characters in the film are trying to do — to lay the groundwork for a shift in the way that we think and the way that we do things.
Aleem: I’m sure you saw how a wave of climate activists vandalizing famous paintings was very polarizing and received some backlash — some critics focused more on collateral damage than their message. This movie focuses more on the act than the response. How did you come to the conclusion to zoom in like that, and what are the implications for how the movie is received?
Goldhaber: I think we focused on the act because we didn’t want to send the message that there’s some sort of silver bullet to solving climate change. And that’s also not even the argument that Andreas makes in the book; the point he makes is that there’s always a radical flank. And to empathize and understand the radical flank is to understand and allow space for it to exist inside of a movement.
Once you start getting into, like, “They blow up the pipeline, and then X, Y, or Z happens,” the movie becomes about the effect of the action, not about the justification of the action. And the movie is all about the last line of the film: “This was an act of self-defense.” That’s what the film is asking people to recognize: the defensibility of what has occurred. And while also recognizing that there are likely to be positive and negative consequences of something like this, but that’s immaterial, to an extent. Because there are often consequences to any act of self-defense. But that’s why we’ve carved out such a legal and moral framework around it — because we recognize its necessity.
Aleem: In recent years, we’ve seen an uptick in more overtly political and ideologically inspired movies that tackle various forms of injustice and exploitation, often from an increasingly left-wing perspective. How do you think about the balancing act between good politics and good art, or the way that there can be a tension between didacticism and the kind of ambiguity and complexity that makes art really move people?
Goldhaber: I think that there shouldn’t be a significant difference. I think that every film is political. Whether it’s explicitly political or not, there is a political core to telling a story. And there are some great stories out there that are leftist, and there are some great stories out there that are very conservative. You know, the quality of the storytelling does not necessarily reflect on the quality of the politics, but the quality of the politics reflects on the quality of the politics. Now, I will say that “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is a movie that is more explicitly didactic and discursive than some leftist films. And it’s also significantly less didactic and discursive than other leftist films. But it’s a movie that’s adapted from a work of academic theory — it means to be a bit didactic; it means to be a bit discursive; the structure of the movie is fundamentally rhetorically constructed. That’s the nature of the adaptation and the nature of the collaboration that we have with the book.
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