IIn the scorching desert heat of West Texas, a young man makes a bomb. Hands shaking, sweat fogging up his glasses, he slowly assembles the explosive. A knife blade of powder is carefully poured into a small tube. The wires are glued together in a shaky way. With infinite care, the delicate and deadly craft takes shape. Outside the tin shack where it all happens, another young man paces, remembering his friend’s instructions: “Don’t come in unless I tell you to. Unless you see the fire. He looks like he’s about to be sick. The public knows how it feels.
That’s the tense setup at the heart of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, a propulsive, edgy thriller about eight young people who want to send a message about the urgency of the climate crisis by sabotaging an oil pipeline. The film draws inspiration from its heroes: aiming to excite the audience to action instead of forcing them into submission. It’s a hell of a ride. After its premiere in Toronto last year, The New York Times called How to Blow Up a Pipeline a “cultural landmark” for its sympathetic take on ecoterrorism, while The Washington City Paper described its young distribution as “a much more intense and flammable film. version of the Breakfast Club”.
What director, co-writer and producer Daniel Goldhaber – one of his four key filmmakers – wanted to do, he says via video call, was a thriller: “Ocean’s Eleven about environmental activism.” It’s an ingenious pitch. No matter how you feel about their approach, you encourage the gang to succeed as much as you do hardened gangsters poring over plans for a successful bank robbery. “The idea of sympathizing with characters who act like that, without ever condemning them for going overboard, is something I don’t see in the media,” says Ariela Barer, who co-wrote, produced and also starred in the movie.
The couple first came up with the idea for the project while self-isolating in a Los Angeles apartment in January 2021. Their other roommate, co-author Jordan Sjol, had gotten his hands on a provocative book called How to Blow Up a Pipeline. It was a manifesto by Swedish academic Andreas Malm that argued for the destruction of property as a tactic in the pursuit of climate justice. The volume was enthusiastically distributed. Goldhaber had the idea of dramatizing his ideas, of making a film of them. But how to adapt a theoretical work to a general public blockbuster? None of them wanted to make a harrowing documentary, or an apocalyptic disaster film in the mold of The Day After Tomorrow or Don’t Look Up. They wanted her to be believable, but also attractive, even optimistic.
For Goldhaber, films that now possess the latter quality tend to have major vested interests – and budgets to match. “We traded the ability to make hopeful movies for movies like Top Gun,” he says, “which is a good movie but definitely a piece of American military propaganda.” Yet tapping into the same emotional beats — underdog narrative, heart-pounding action — and using them to talk about acts of sabotage and resistance is, he says, “a totally valid and important thing for the progressive movement to build on.” engaged”.
That’s right: watching the gang plant the explosive, or Michael, the young man in that pivotal scene, cooking it in the first place, the work at the center of How to Blow Up a Pipeline shares more DNA with films of tense Hollywood heists like Thief or Inside Man. “What they’re doing is pretty dangerous,” says film editor Daniel Garber, who completes the quartet, each of them billed equally in the credits as creators (like their characters, they form a collective). “That’s what causes this stomach-churning feeling of, ‘Oh my God, are they going to blow themselves up? “”
Once you create a certain level of tension, he says, it gives you time to digress. “The heist,” he adds, “is a Trojan horse into which we can introduce all these other concepts.” These concepts are explored in flashbacks, each detailing how individual characters became involved in the cause.
The team spent two months interviewing climate activists and pipeline experts about their experiences. Some have become characters. Clarissa Thibeaux, Barer’s friend and noted consultant, partly inspired Theo, played by American Honey’s Sasha Lane, whose leukemia diagnosis she attributes to growing up near a chemical plant. They were also inspired by the story of Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoyawho were jailed on terrorism charges after vandalizing the Dakota Access Pipeline with an acetylene torch, despite there being no oil flowing through it.
Barer had campaigned against its construction as a teenager. “The pipeline was built,” she says, “and nothing really happened, even though the activists did everything right.” This failure, after an immaculate campaign, was one of the reasons she was so drawn to Malm’s book: “It felt like a shameless push for a radical flank.” The book also detailed acts of sabotage sometimes mistakenly considered non-violent, such as women’s suffrage. “Reading a theory like this invigorated me,” she says.
The filmmakers also wanted to more accurately portray communities impacted by the climate crisis, bringing in Indigenous actor Forrest Goodluck (who played Leonardo DiCaprio’s son in The Revenant) to consult on the film as well as the maker’s star. Michael bombs. Their on-screen ensemble is mostly made up of people of color and includes working-class voices, with Malm’s book having described movements such as Extinction Rebellion as “constantly aloof from class and race factors.” Goldhaber says that while the film acknowledges the type of activist often criticized for biasing white and privileged people, it is intended as “a kaleidoscope of all the different types of people involved in the movement.” The idea was to offer wide access points to the public. It also explains the film’s subtly comedic moments: while the characters are taken seriously, they don’t themselves. Two even have fun while waiting for a timer to go off.
“It would be totally alienating if it was all melodrama,” Barer says. “If it was me and my friends, we’d get drunk the night before. We’d be silly about that, because it’s so scary. Even with “the perfect plan” they have, there are so many personal risks and sacrifices.” The intention was provocation, Goldhaber adds, not propaganda, not just “annoying people who already believe in what you say.” Instead, they wanted to shift the conversation from deciding whether or not to act to actual tactics and strategy. once you do.
Earlier this year in the UK, more than 120 lawyers defied bar rules and arguably engaged in an act of civil disobedience by signing a statement declaring that they would not prosecute peaceful climate activists, nor defend corporations pursuing fossil fuel projects. But what about non-peaceful activists? If pipelines are morally indefensible, is there a moral obligation to destroy them? “If you see how self-defense it is for these eight characters,” says Goldhaber, “it opens up a whole world of questions and possibilities for the future of the climate movement.”
All four filmmakers have their own stories to tell on their journey to activism. Goldhaber’s seems the most conventional: parents who worked in the field, a childhood spent “with the fate of climate change hanging over me”. He worked on the 2012 documentary Chasing the Iceabout collapsing glaciers, but was disappointed that the film triggered few valuable changes.
Sjol, who grew up in rural Wyoming, tells me he hiked the jagged peaks of the Tetons as a kid during the summer, climbing to one of the range’s glacial lakes. “The glacier would get a little smaller every year,” he says, “until it was almost gone.”
Barer is the youngest of the group and perhaps the most passionate. She was raised in Los Angeles by a mother who “came from the hippie movement in Mexico” and preached a gospel of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” When she was nine, the family visited Disneyland. In line for the roller coaster, she heard an adult say that the planet was dying. Devastated, she asked how much time was left. They were about 40 years old. “I was like, ‘I’m only 49? That’s it?'”
Barer, now 24, remains haunted by the trade. “I’ve been thinking about that number ever since.”