An Interview with How to Change the World Director Jerry Rothwell

How to Change the World, a Special Jury Award winner at Sundance, tells the lively story behind Greenpeace, the world's largest activist organization. We spoke to director Jerry Rothwell about molding hundreds of hours of archival 16 mm footage into a cohesive group portrait and much more.

What sparked your interest in Greenpeace and their origins? Did you feel it was a very pertinent subject matter?

Whilst researching a different project in the Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, I realized that Greenpeace was in the process of centralizing its film archive from its various national offices. They’d employed an archivist to look at the 1500 cans of 16mm they had in order to decide what was worth keeping. I’ve always been interested in how radical organisations form and grow, so it seemed a good opportunity to explore that through this material. At the time we didn’t really know what was on those reels. I started reading the books of Bob Hunter – first president of the Greenpeace Foundation – and loved his honest, humorous writing about those years.

There are lots of reasons to explore this story now. I think we’re in a phase which is perhaps a bit like the end of the sixties – the death throes of one kind of social organization and the emergence of something different – or at least the need for it. I was also interested in how older people thought about their radical past. I thought maybe we could make a film in which the lessons of that period became visible to a younger generation.

The film uses a fair amount of archival footage. How did you go about acquiring access to the clips, and how much footage did you have to sort through to whittle it down to what appears in the film?

Greenpeace were very supportive of our exploration of the archive, though they didn’t have any editorial control over the film. We scanned around 20 hours of it at HD resolution and synched it up to the audio on the original reel to reel tapes.

I started with the shape of a story based on Hunter’s writings and on the period between 1971, when the group sailed a boat into a nuclear test zone in Alaska, and 1979, when, victims of their own success and mired in internal conflict, they essentially gave the organisation away to an international board, in order for it to grow. So I was looking for archive that would help tell that story, but then the archive itself started to dictate how particular scenes worked.

There were areas where the Greenpeace footage was very strong (for example the first anti-whaling campaign) and areas where there was very little. We also did a lot of research looking for archives held by others, so maybe 30% of the archive in the film comes from other sources. I think in total, including all the archive and the interviews, we had around 100 hours to work with.

Given a handful of your subject's contentious personal histories, did any of them have qualms about participating?

Almost everyone I approached was keen to contribute. I think this was a key moment in all of their lives and shaped who they are, so they wanted to have a say in how it was represented. I was really grateful for the honesty and thoughtfulness all of them brought to the interviews. The film tells a contested history – and it was crucial that people were willing to explore that candidly.

Can you describe how your approach differs -- if at all -- when shooting and then editing your own footage, versus working with someone else's? Are you able to achieve a greater sense of objectivity with the latter? 

I don’t think it’s so much a matter of objectivity. Both archive films and those shot contemporaneously require a strong relationship with the subject and inevitably the finished film is just one possible view. I tend to work in the same way for both – in the sense that process starts with a sense of a rough possible shape, which gradually adds detail and depth as production develops. In a story that is unfolding whilst you shoot, that shape is a response to events and to people and the footage you manage to capture. In an archive film, watching archive for the first time is a bit like shooting – it sparks ideas and the shape of the film develops in an interaction with the material.