Sometimes a film-maker gets lucky. I saw a good example earlier this year, watching Knock Down the House. Someone had to be there, filming Alexandria Ocasio Cortez talking about her political ambitions while polishing glasses in a New York bar. If she hadn’t won, the footage might never have been used. As it is, they got to be there to see history being made.
Nathan Grossman is another such film-maker, booking in a couple of days at short notice to film a solo climate protest after a suggestion from a friend who was working with Greta Thunberg’s mum. And so he was there on day one of her school strike outside the Swedish parliament.
There was no way of knowing at that point that Greta would become a media sensation and launch a global movement. In the event, and unlikely though it may seem, that day of filming became a year and then a feature length documentary, I Am Greta.
We get to travel with Greta on the whirlwind that follows. We’re in the car when her Dad takes a call from the UN, Greta grinning in the passenger seat as she is invited to speak to the climate talks. We see speeches, mass youth rallies and meetings with heads of state – and also the waiting rooms, station platforms, conference centre corridors and hotel rooms that come with such audiences.
Greta herself is the modest centre of all this activity, a naturally quiet and shy character. Her Aspergers has made her an outsider, though she talks about how it allows her to do what she does. “Sometimes it feels like those of us with Aspergers are the only ones who see through the static” she says.
The film is an intimate portrait, made with remarkable access and an obviously high level of trust. For much of the running time it is just Greta and her dad, and presumably this ever-present silent third party with a camera. Lots of the film is on the road, with the final sequence packed into a small boat on the Atlantic.
Grossman has an eye for telling details, both about Greta and her message. We see moments of unguarded innocence that remind us that Greta is, despite everything, still a child – doing a dorky dance on a sleeper train, and then ducking sheepishly back into the compartment as someone comes down the corridor. We also see politicians on their phones as she speaks, aptly demonstrating the complacency she accuses them of.
Aside from Greta, her dad Svante is the only other major character, perhaps excepting the Belgian youth activist Anuna De Wever, who features as a friend and confidant. Svante drives Greta across continents, accompanies her on trains and carries baggage, makes sure she eats. The car is packed with tins and there’s a microwave in the boot. At one point we hear about the death threats Greta has received, and see Svante being briefed by a medical team on how to administer emergency first aid in the case of a shooting.
There are no talking heads interpreting events, no voiceover, no great revelations. But if you only know Greta Thunberg from the news footage, it’s a striking portrait of a teenager caught up in a remarkable moment, finding herself the voice of her generation and centre-stage at a historic turning point.