Watching Rebellion, Maia Kenworthy and Elena Sanchez Bellot’s film about British climate action group Extinction Rebellion development is a lesson in how far the world has come in a short time – and how far it yet has to go if humanity is to avoid climate catastrophe.
As the UN’s environmental conference COP26 in Glasgow wraps up, and politicians and officials wrangle over how to stick to targets to keep the planet within a 1.5 per cent increase in pre-industrial warming in the coming years, the fiercer truths of the climate crisis sometimes slip from view.
Rebellion reminds us that whatever ways politicians twist and turn, however many carbon off-set schemes or ‘greensplaining’ the fossil fuel industry offers, unless humanity begins effecting radical changes in how it acts, it will all be academic: extinction will soon become unavoidable.
Kenworth and Bellot were granted intimate access to the inner world of XR from its earliest days and the swift development of a group dedicated, under the leadership of Roger Hallam, to non-violent direct action and a policy of deliberately seeking members’ arrests to increase media coverage, makes for fascinating viewing.
Hallam is an intriguing character. An organic farmer on a smallholding in Wales, he says increasingly irregular weather in recent years – which has lost him crops and forced him to lay off workers – focused his attention on climate change. Single-minded and stubborn, he founded XR in the autumn of 2018 and swiftly developed a strategy to bring protest to the heart of London.
«What we are entering into is the most fucked bolloxy situation imaginable,» he remarks of the climate crisis – although it could equally well apply to the situation XR finds itself in as its fearless tactics soon clash with powerful vested political and industrial interests.
extinction will soon become unavoidable
Cast of characters
Rebellion introduces a range of XR characters – including long-term human rights and climate activist lawyer Farhana Yamin, early XR member Sam Knights, and Hallam’s daughter Savannah Lovelock – exploring the open democracy of the movement and the tensions that emerge as activists come under increasing pressure.
It seems a long time ago now, after a couple of years of the dark, restrictive global energy of the Covid pandemic and associated curbs on individual freedoms. Still, the sheer exuberance and initial success of XR’s April rebellion of 2019 make for emotional viewing.
Over eight days of protests in London that included occupying Waterloo Bridge, Oxford Circus, and protestors glueing themselves to doors at the entrance of the Shell oil company’s London HQ, more than 1,100 people were arrested, and XR and media pressure lead to the British government becoming the first in the world to declare an official «Climate Emergency.» Lawmakers the world over followed suit, and the global climate crisis shot to the top of the global political agenda.
Maintaining such momentum is always a key challenge for revolutionary movements – which XR is – and tensions between Hallam’s laser-like focus on arrests and «disruption» and the emergence of other agendas from, particularly, younger activists who wished to look more closely at global justice and the human cost of the «green revolution» (for example the mining of rare minerals in developing countries essential for solar panels or electric vehicle batteries), begin to dominate discussions at strategy meetings.
Soon the politicians and police – initially wrong-footed during the April Rebellion – circle their wagons and respond. London’s Metropolitan Police go on the offensive and declare plans to repeat protests in the city later in 2019 illegal (although this is, in fact, unlawful itself, and the High Court later overturns the order), make a pre-emptive strike on XR’s London HQ and warehouse, and take a much more aggressive and violent approach to peaceful protestors.
Britain’s extreme right-wing government introduces a deeply repressive new Police, Crime and Sentencing bill that effectively seeks to criminalise peaceful protest, with penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for «noisy protests» and ill-thought-through actions – such as stopping electric trains at a London light-rail system during morning commuter rush hour – create splits within XR and negative headlines in the British press.
Rebellion skilfully follows both the public actions and inner tensions of XR – which burst into the open during a confrontation between Hallam and his emotional daughter Savannah, representing the youth wing of the movement. When he effectively refuses to listen to her pleas to listen to different views within XR, she storms out shouting, «Fuck you!»
XR’s leadership agrees that Hallam’s dominance of the conversation within XR is not working and he leaves, later setting up a new direct action group, as Farhana – a veteran of more than 22 UN COP conferences, forges a new coalition demanding that climate justice is put at the centre of COP26, and Savannah, thoroughly burnt out, leaves XR to teach at a forest school.
XR continues to engage in non-violence acts of civil disobedience. Politicians continue to fudge and fiddle as global warming and climate change continue their inexorable march.