Hannah Carter reviews I am Greta, a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the life of teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. From her beginnings as a solitary protestor to holding world leaders to account on a global scale, this documentary explores Greta’s meteoric rise to becoming a symbol of the climate crisis.
I Am Greta is an intriguing choice of title for Nick Grossman’s first documentary film which follows the journey of world-famous climate activist Greta Thunberg. Within a few minutes of the film beginning, the conflict that sits on those three words, and indeed throughout the film as a whole, is apparent.
Unlike the title suggests, Greta is not in fact eager to tell you about herself. At numerous points throughout this film it’s obvious she is less than excited to shine a spotlight on her life. It’s a difficult foundation for a documentary and it ends in varying results- a sense of lacking, a lot of questions, and some beautiful and vulnerable moments.
The story follows Greta’s activism from surprisingly early on, with footage of her sitting alone outside Stockholm’s government buildings back in 2018. She has made some climate fact sheets for people to take. She is largely ignored or berated by passers by for missing school. Cut to fifteen minutes in and she is being invited to the COP24 Climate Conference in Poland to speak. It’s a whirlwind journey captured in this film, tracking her as she meets European leaders, speaks at the EU parliament and as she sets sail across the Atlantic to speak at the UN in New York. It’s got all the ingredients for an incredible story of adventure but in her own words Greta sees it ‘…as a very bad movie, because the plot would be so unlikely.’ It’s a theme that runs throughout this documentary, her incredulity at people’s attempt to place such a narrative on her life. From the outset she makes clear she is doing this simply because she believes she must. She would much rather be at home.
One of the biggest strengths of this documentary is its success in capturing Greta’s authenticity. It’s quiet and restrained approach allows her dedication to her beliefs to shine through. There is no self-indulgent exploration into Greta’s psyche, but rather a simply artful recording of her experiences and her response. With this established, Grossman’s weaving in of media footage of some of her most public critics is a powerful tool to discredit them. We are shown brief clips of Vladamir Putin, Donald Trump and other prominent figures taking aim at Greta’s character. The criticism ranges from descriptions of a child with no understanding to a ‘brat’ who is ‘mentally ill’.
This structure achieves its aims perfectly and leaves her critics in a less than flattering light, making it difficult for a viewer to do anything but ridicule these individuals that would openly attack a sixteen-year-old girl for following her beliefs.
It is of course worth noting that this film is definitely on Greta’s side. It does not seek to criticise or evaluate, but rather feels protective of Greta and respectful of her boundaries. We are given a few montages of her childhood, over which she narrates a brief account of some of her early struggles, but that’s about as far as it goes for her private life. Her mother features rarely, her sister not at all.
The only family member we are shown in any depth is her father, Svante Thunberg, as he follows her around the world and reminds her to eat her lunch. It is the depiction of their touching father-daughter relationship that is the saving grace of this documentary. The strongest insights we gain into Greta’s character come directly through their interactions caught on camera. We see the immense stress she is under and the support she needs from Svante. We catch them laughing hysterically together at funny photos of her Dad at climate conferences. There is also footage of Greta reading messages written by her online trolls and laughing to herself, but the quiet pain on her father’s face gives us the first glimpse we’ve had into how this may be impacting her family.
The takeaways from I Am Greta are not obvious. Is this a coming-of-age story about Greta? Is it supposed to be a call to action? Very little focus is cast on actual climate science and if this film sought to change any naysayers minds on climate change, I’m not sure it would have. It’s a lack of focus that it’s clear would be frustrating to Greta herself. So why make it? Why did she agree to it at all?
In one clip Greta travels to the Hambach forest in Germany. It has been nearly entirely decimated by deforestation. Standing in front of what is now a coal mine she states ‘…I just wanted to come here to gain media attention […] so that the media would focus on it.’ Here is the closest we’ll come to the purpose of this film. Regardless of her anger towards a global media that seems fixated on creating celebrities to champion a cause, she has decided she is willing to do it. Her discomfort at being put in this position is difficult to watch at times. Here is a child trying her best to tell people she is a child. Meanwhile, she allows herself to be propelled into stardom to make people care about the world in which they live. I Am Greta is more than a snapshot of the life of Greta Thunberg, it’s a study on the very strange times in which we live.
For more information and to watch online visit the I am Greta website.
Hannah Carter is a Cardiff-based contributor with an interest in environmental reform and the intersection of arts and activism.