The grainy, forty-year-old footage shows a Russian whaling ship bearing down on two skinny hippies in a little rubber speedboat. A whale, too exhausted to dive, tries its best to outrun the gunner. At that moment a harpoon flies into view, passing just a few metres over the heads of the men in the zodiac and smashing into the back of the whale.
Within days these images would become iconic newsreel, shocking the western world with the brutality of the annual whale hunt.
“[They] got the shot and that was the moment that launched the modern ecology movement,” said Greenpeace founding member Rex Weyler, in a new film about the early years of the world’s biggest activism organisation.
But Jerry Rothwell, the director of How to Change the World, which won the Environment award at the prestigious Sheffield Doc/Fest on Wednesday, said Greenpeace could no longer rely on the explosive, consciousness-changing tactics that brought them to international fame and notoriety.
In an era saturated with shocking images, said Rothwell, “it’s much harder to make a single image have the same kind of impact”.
The film explores the development of the “mindbomb”, an image that sends a collective shock through the world leading to action. The phrase was coined by Greenpeace co-founder Bob Hunter, who was one of the men standing in the speedboat in front of the Russian whaler during that first anti-whaling voyage in 1975.
Hunter was one of the first to understand the power of a viral image to power environmental change. Rothwell said he was surprised by the deliberateness of Greenpeace’s tactics, even in those very early days.
“One of the things that really surprised me but I guess it’s kind of obvious is that after they found the Russian whalers and got their footage they turned around after one day’s engagement and went to San Francisco in order to process it and get it out. Because that was far more important than trying to stop more whales getting killed,” he said.
The film, which is due for release in the UK in September, includes never-before-seen archive footage that shows the level of stage management and planning that went into creating each specific image, with Hunter, a journalist, acting as a director of production.
“The lovely moments in the archives are the bits where Bob Hunter goes ‘OK this is a film thing’ when they come across the first dead whale that they find. And the sense that primarily they are going out to capture a very specific David and Goliath image, which will play a certain way in people’s minds. That’s what Hunter pioneered,” Rothwell said.
Ben Stewart, a current Greenpeace activist whose book about the Arctic 30’s jail term in Russia has just been released, told the Guardian that the organisation recognised that its ability to shock had diminished over time.
“The mindbomb has to take different forms as we go forward. It can’t just be hairy guys in speed boats,” he said. “There’s been a tendency within the organisation to just paint a banner and hang it off a famous building and I think that just doesn’t wash, it’s just not interesting enough.
“The environmental crisis is more profound than it was in 1971 but it’s being met with a greater degree of apathy in some quarters. And in some countries where Greenpeace have been operating for a long time there is a shrug of the shoulders and ‘there they go again’.”
In recognition of the fading power of the mindbomb, Greenpeace have begun pouring funding into new units designed to dig up dirt on their targets.
“Investigations are the new actions. As media organisations slash back their investigations budgets we want to try to get into that space as well and try to bring pressure to bear on companies and politicians by exposing what their doing with those methods, alongside the direct action,” said Stewart.
The rise to fame of a disparate bunch of Vancouver peaceniks, mystics, dropouts and anarchists during the early 1970s was “like a band that has a sudden hit single”, said Rothwell. And, as with many bands, it ended in a highly public implosion that sundered friendships and almost destroyed the organisation.
One of the schisms was between Hunter and Paul Watson, who left Greenpeace and went on to found Sea Shepherd. Hunter advocated the Quaker concept of bearing witness as a catalyst of change. To Watson, sailing away from the fight, images stored safely in film canisters, was unacceptable. Sea Shepherd have long been characterised by a more violent approach. Watson has personally rammed boats at sea.
“Bearing witness, to me is cowardice,” he told Rothwell in the film. “It’s a non-intervention. I never understood it.”
Rothwell said it was good to question the value of bearing witness: “Especially in an age when what we tend to do is see something shocking on Facebook, share it and then feel like we’ve done something to stop it, which we probably haven’t. But I don’t wholly agree with Paul that it’s completely pointless. Things like Ferguson, the witnessing of an event can still have the power to get people to active and out on the streets and protesting.”
How to Change the World is out in cinemas on 11 September, courtesy of Picturehouse Entertainment
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