Swedish documentarian Nathan Grossman happened upon then 15-year-old Greta Thunberg just as she was beginning her “school strike for climate” in Stockholm in 2018. He began documenting Thunberg’s strike, and ended up recording her meteoric year as she rose to international prominence as a climate activist, culminating in her excoriating speech to the UN in 2019. Combining his own footage with home videos, I Am Greta is a frank look at the pressure of being made a figurehead, and how Thunberg, diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, handles that pressure as the media attention around her reaches Beatlemania proportions. Though there is plenty of climate talk in the documentary, this is not really about climate change or climate science. I Am Greta is about a young girl finding herself the unexpected leader of an international movement, and what it looks like from the inside of that particular media tornado.
Because he found Thunberg so early in her protest, Grossman is able to capture the organic way her movement grew. An early scene shows an older woman gently scolding Thunberg for being out of school, acknowledging Thunberg’s environmental message is important, but so is school. Soon, though, a hip young woman asks to sit with Thunberg, and then more people join the growing crowd as Thunberg passes out a fact sheet she wrote about climate science. The first message of I Am Greta is that Thunberg truly did this herself, she is not being pushed out there by her parents. Indeed, her father, Svante, is opposed to her skipping school but we are told that upon learning of the urgency of the climate crisis, Thunberg stopped eating and barely spoke for almost a year. It seemed the only way to address her feelings was to let her strike, and Thunberg dutifully prepared handouts in case anyone wanted to learn more. This is in stark contrast to the largely right wing messaging that Thunberg is merely a pawn of fame-hungry adults.
What I Am Greta does well is show the day-to-day reality of how Thunberg’s life changed over the course of a year, and how she copes as the attention around her grows. Sometimes, she simply doesn’t, shutting down or crying when she is overwhelmed. Other times, though, she pushes through, and you can see her learning to wield her now-famous stoicism as a kind of shield against the attention. She laughs off the vicious things said about her in the media but struggles to meet the demand of leading marches and public appearances. Svante often must call time outs, making sure she eats and has quiet time to herself. The psychological and emotional toll of her activism is obvious, but Thunberg pushes through every time, even as her patience wears thin with politicians who want photo ops but don’t follow through on meaningful progress against climate change.
I Am Greta focuses squarely on Thunberg, the camera stays close to her always, and she provides the voiceover. The result is intimate, including quiet moments between Thunberg and her horse or slowly brushing her dog to relax, and behind-the-scene moments such as lamenting a climate summit that runs out of hamburgers (large-scale beef production is a major contributor to greenhouse gasses). We see so much of Thunberg’s life that it becomes patently ridiculous when someone accuses her of being “phony” because she does not offer solutions to climate change—she doesn’t have to “offer” solutions because she is LIVING them. She has given up meat and dairy, stopped air travel, urged her parents to switch to electric vehicles. She acknowledges the privilege inherit in these lifestyle changes, but that is her entire point. She and her family made the adjustments they could, and Thunberg would like everyone else to do the same, especially politicians who can implement meaningful policy changes.
People entrenched against climate change probably won’t have their minds changed by I Am Greta. But the film is not really out to change minds, it’s just painting a portrait of the girl at the forefront of the cause. It’s humanizing Thunberg as her international profile grows so big, she seems more symbol than person. It’s a reminder that her urgency is real, and this is not a polished media campaign put together by savvy operatives. Greta Thunberg is passionately devoted to environmentalism, and she seems genuinely mad to have to be the one bearing this message. I Am Greta arrives as half the western US is on fire, following devastating fires in Australia and the Amazon, so it’s easy to understand her mounting frustration with the inaction around climate change. The world is literally on fire, and a Swedish teenager will keep reminding us of that until the adults in the room take charge.
Greta Thunberg will be featured alongside teen Anishinaabe activist Autumn Peltier, profiled in the short documentary The Water Walker, as part of TIFF’s special event program. You can find ticketing information for this digital event here.