This New Documentary Exposes the Plight of Extinction Rebellion

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Rebellion, 2022
Rebellion, 2022(Film still)

This new Netflix documentary about Extinction Rebellion is painfully honest when it comes to portraying the pitfalls of trying to save the world

For 11 days in April 2019, central London was brought to a standstill by protesters blocking some of the country’s busiest roads. The idea was to put climate change at the heart of the national conversation, and it worked: one month and more than a thousand arrests later, Extinction Rebellion forced the government into declaring a “climate emergency”, with countries around the world swiftly following suit.

Six months on, when the group attempted the same stunt, a different picture emerged: police moved in quickly on protesters, citing Section 14 of the Public Order Act in a move later ruled unlawful by the High Court. What’s more, the group had become mired in a series of internal wranglings and publicity own-goals that had ceded the moral impetus. The October uprising never happened – and then Covid hit.

Looking back at the carnivalesque scenes of April 2019, as filmmakers Maia Kenworthy and Elena Sanchez Bellot do in Rebellion, it’s easy to feel like it was all some kind of fever dream. The Tories soon reverted to type, cooking up the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill in 2021, an odious piece of legislation designed to give police sweeping powers to put the kibosh on any protest they don’t like the look of.

But whatever the movement’s flaws, this fascinating documentary succeeds in bringing to life its organisers’ glee – and, frankly, surprise – at what they managed to achieve. Then there’s the power of what people like Farhana Yamin did. Yamin is a seasoned lawyer and veteran of 22 COPs who had been instrumental in the creation of the Paris Climate Agreement. And yet here she was, supergluing her hands to the pavement in front of Shell’s London HQ.

Surprisingly, it’s a family drama that Kenworthy and Sanchez Bellot put at the heart of their film, which is insightful about the difficulties inherent in activism. Roger Hallam is a founding member of XR, an intractable figure who sums up his approach to protest like this: “My view is if you’re not in prison, you’re not in resistance ... You keep going until you’re either banged up or you’re dead.” His monomania exposes fault lines within the group and causes a rift with his daughter, Savannah, who dropped out of university to join the movement but later walks out, in one of the film’s most emotional scenes, after he ignores her teary-eyed pleas for moderation.

The documentary takes its leave at a moment of retrenchment for the group. Figures like Alejandra Piazzolla are pushing for greater recognition of social justice issues within the movement, which has at times been criticised as myopically white and middle class. But Rebellion serves as a timely reminder of their achievements, as well as the larger battles ahead. As co-founder Gail Bradbrook says of the trouble with asking people to take to the streets and engage in acts of civil disobedience: “You may as well ask them to get naked and take a shit in the corner.” But take to the streets they did.

Rebellion is on Netflix from April 1.