At the Rio in Dalston on Sunday, I admit I had severe misgivings at the start of a screening of Just Do It, a film that describes itself as "a tale of modern-day outlaws" and focuses on the experiences of some of the campaigners who took part in environmental direct action during 2009 and 2010. During its first ten minutes, director Emily James' documentary seemed likely to reinforce the cynical, stereotypical portrayal of climate activists as essentially rather lovable English eccentrics, people who are privileged enough to pursue their unconventional activism full-time but are concerned more with the appearance of doing good than really changing anything. My heart sank at the agonisingly long silence that followed a question put to one of the film's main protagonists, Marina Pepper, about whether her actions really make any difference.
But then appeared the images that I have seen so many times through my involvement in the Ian Tomlinson Family Campaign that I can hardly bear to watch them now: the footage of Ian as he is pushed violently to the floor and of G20 protesters battered and corralled by riot police. It was a reminder that the low-level policing of the Camp for Climate Action on Blackheath in August 2009 was a surprising exception, the result of huge pressure upon the Metropolitan police following its brutal tactics three months earlier. Far more often, climate activists engaged in direct action choose to risk the possibility of violent policing, the likelihood of arrest and the realistic prospect of conviction. Eccentric some may well be, but it's far from a game: everyone who appeared in the film are also incredibly brave individuals.
This willingness to get stuck in, to forcefully but peaceably disrupt the companies contributing to climate change and the police and security guards that defend them, really came to life as the film moved on to the Great Climate Swoop at Ratcliffe on Soar power station in October 2009, focusing on the tactics adopted by the protesters, how affinity groups are organised and how carry out a 'de-arrest'. Sadly, recent developments involving the unmasking of the undercover police spy Mark Kennedy came too late for the film's final cut and its most powerful section therefore focused on what became a turning point for many climate activists: the UN's COP15 conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, when the world's governments came together to try and thrash out a deal to cut global carbon emissions.
Billed in advance as a 'last chance' to tackle climate change, Denmark's government brought in sweeping new police powers to try and prevent protesters from causing disruption and almost 1000 arrests were made during demonstrations. The film documents the deplorable treatment of activists by the Danish police, including the prolonged detention without charge in cages, and how little police officers understood the powers they had been handed (something they have in common with their counterparts in the UK). But in spite of the protesters' efforts and the huge anticipation that had proceeded it, the conference failed to deliver. Some activists returned disheartened and many questioned where the climate justice movement should go next but for others, including Sophie Nathan who appeared in the film, the experience was radicalising and led to a more openly anti-capitalist viewpoint that has been strengthened by the election of a new government in Britain. Climate Camp activists have gone on to provide the driving force for the emergence of UKUncut.
Just Do It does have its weaknesses: it would have benefited from spending more time explaining the grassroots campaigning by Plane Stupid in support of residents fighting the planned third runway at Heathrow and how this campaign, with a clearly defined objective, led to eventual victory. It is also difficult to see what its target audience really is - in the question-and-answer session that followed the film, Emily James told a sympathetic Hackney audience, surely its core demographic, that it isn't aimed at activists but at those who are thinking of becoming more active. I'm not entirely convinced.
Another weakness is that in many ways the Q&A was almost more enlightening than elements of the film itself, providing answers to some of the unresolved questions about the purpose of direct action (disappointingly, the focus was more on its individualistic value in offering 'personal transformation' than on movement-building). It also addressed the dilemma posed by heavy handed policing, which helps to draw people together as it did in Copenhagen and at Kingsnorth in 2008, which Marina Pepper said was "the making of the movement", but can drown out the issues. The debate on Sunday allowed the director to talk about the the difficulties of not "engaging in riot porn" but never backing away from material simply because it might scare new people away.
Overall, however, Just Do It is an absorbing, illuminating and at times very funny film that opens up what is the necessarily secretive world of planning and executing direct action. It also highlights how climate activism's initially peculiar 'flappy hands' consensus decision-making, although far from perfect, has ensured that women are central to its planning and participation, which can't always be said for other movements of the anti-capitalist left.
Equally, as a means of documenting the work of activists, the film is also a model for others to follow: the process of talking to campaigners, gaining their trust and working through potential legal implications with lawyers, for six months before filming began, is an object lesson in preparation that the Guardian's proposed new crowd-sourced book on undercover policing could really learn a great deal from.
'Just Do It' is screening again tomorrow (Tuesday 26 July) at Picturehouse Greenwich at 6.30pm. See here for more details