Recasting The Climate Movement In ‘How To Blow Up A Pipeline’
Climate activism is getting the big screen treatment this spring, with the new film “How to Blow Up a Pipeline.” This action-packed heist film follows a group of young climate activists, disillusioned by the slow pace of climate action, who decide to take drastic action in the name of the climate. What follows is a tense ‘will they-won’t they’ story set in Texas oil country.
The name of this movie comes from a 2021 nonfiction book by Andreas Malm. That book is a manifesto that argues that property damage and sabotage is the only way forward for climate activism. The movie features characters who struggle with this question, and whether there’s a different way to accomplish their climate goals.
Guest host Kathleen Davis speaks with Ariela Barer, who co-wrote, produced, and acted in the film. They chat about bringing this complicated topic to the big screen, and creating characters reflective of the real-life climate movement.
Ariela Barer is an actor, screenwriter, and producer of “How to Blow Up a Pipeline.” She’s based in New York, New York.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Climate activism is also getting the big screen treatment this spring, and that’s the subject of our next Science Goes to the Movies. The new film How to Blow Up a Pipeline is an action packed thriller. It follows a group of young climate activists who disillusioned by the slow pace of climate action decide to take drastic action in the name of the climate.
The name of this movie comes from a 2021 nonfiction book by Andreas Malm. That book is a manifesto that argues that property damage and sabotage are the only way forward for climate activism. The movie features characters who struggle with this question and whether there’s a different way to accomplish their climate goals. I spoke to Ariela Barer, actor, screenwriter, and producer of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, and we started by talking about the process of writing this provocative script with Director Daniel Goldhaber. I asked her how she balanced these different perspectives about climate action.
ARIELA BARER: So I wrote the script with Danny and Jordan Scholl. And a lot of the conversations that these characters have, these different point of views came from a lot of our initial conversations around what we wanted to do with this movie and how we wanted it to be received. Initially, when Danny approached me with the idea for this, he wanted to make a piece of outright propaganda, which was an idea that both excited and terrified me because, while I had long been engaged with the ideas around property destruction in social movements, putting that out on a mass scale without these contexts of these conversations made me nervous.
And so it was actually through these conversations that Danny and I had about about how we would be seen, about how this movie would be received, the impact that it could have, and our fears around it that became a very quick narrative and character tension in the movie. And a lot of it plays out throughout the characters of Alisha and Xochitl.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: You’re doing double duty on this film. You wrote the screenplay and you also play one of the central characters whose name is Xochitl. What was that experience like?
ARIELA BARER: Extremely cathartic. It’s interesting because when we first started writing the script, I in no way was thinking about being in the movie. Xochitl was one of the first characters I really thought of because the idea at first was just, what if it was us in our friends who did this tomorrow?
And Xochitl was someone that I started processing my own feelings around, how I had engaged in climate movements in the past, being someone who believed in divestment. And to extents, I still do. I think it’s an ecosystem of things that all have to work together to make progress. And divestment is absolutely a necessary tool, but I also wanted to engage with ideas around a radical flank and sabotage and all of these things.
So Xochitl was a way of processing that kind of feeling of a lack of agency and a need to take it with force while also writing Alisha very much from the perspective of my fears around doing something like this. And that whole tension, basically the whole final conversation was my internal tension around writing the script at all.
And then once we decided that I would play Xochitl, part of Danny’s pitch around that was that Xochitl could also be a vehicle for us to interrogate our relationship to putting yourself at the center of a movement, the type of ego that exists around that and what good and what setbacks that causes a movement that is so collective that has to be so about community.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: When you were preparing for this movie, did you speak with climate activists?
ARIELA BARER: I know for writing it, we first contacted Andreas, just pitching the idea, Andreas Malm, who wrote How to Blow Up the Pipeline. And he was excited and also had no idea how we could do this, but he immediately put us in touch with a lot of activists. And we also just started talking to our friends.
And at a certain point in our conversations with Andreas when we mentioned some of our hesitations around making a movie about this subject matter, he was extremely supportive of that and even started sending us dissenting opinions, just like reviews of his book that hated the book and was like, this makes great points to really round out the cast of characters. And we were very much advised to not make this group a monolith at all, just agrees on their one thing.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: What message do you want people to take away from this movie? They’re sitting in the theater. The lights go up. People are starting to leave. How do you want people to feel?
ARIELA BARER: I don’t want to push one thing I think that would be the least interesting way forward. I hope that this meets people where they’re at and brings them into a conversation. I think specifically, it being in theaters is important because it brings people into physical space together to discuss these ideas. And I think community and organizing is just going to be the best thing we can do moving forward.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Thanks to Ariela for joining me to talk about How to Blow Up a Pipeline, the movie. The film is in theaters now.