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Heist thriller 'How to Blow Up a Pipeline' explores the case for destructive protest

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

There's a movie coming out today with a somewhat self-explanatory title, "How To Blow Up A Pipeline."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE")

ARIELA BARER: (As Xochitl) We have to show how vulnerable the oil industry is by hitting something big.

FLORIDO: To be clear, this movie does not actually instruct you how to explode petroleum infrastructure. It's a heist film. Just, instead of robbing a bank or stealing a famous painting, eight people come together to try to blow up a pipeline.

DANIEL GOLDHABER: It's a movie where people are, like, moving bombs around for, you know, a good 45 minutes. I think people come out feeling like their nerves have been a bit a bit jangled but in a good way.

FLORIDO: That's director Daniel Goldhaber. He and his collaborators were inspired by a provocative book of the same title by an activist and academic named Andreas Malm. His book is an argument for sabotage, for strategic property destruction to force a halt to fossil fuel extraction because the argument is that more peaceful climate activism isn't working whereas the movie is a suspense film about a fictional pipeline.

GOLDHABER: We built the pipeline.

BARER: It was made of cardboard.

FLORIDO: So it wasn't really...

GOLDHABER: Don't spoil us (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

BARER: But that's so cool.

FLORIDO: Ariela Barer helped write and produce the movie with Daniel Goldhaber, and she stars as one of the eight protagonists. When we all sat down to talk, I asked how they developed the characters for a heist film about a drastic environmental protest.

GOLDHABER: From the beginning, I think that we wanted a movie that felt like it could capture a cross-section of the different kinds of people who are experiencing climate change firsthand. So there was kind of a research process that was always kind of predicated on meeting with people and asking them, you know, hey, we're thinking about making a movie that engages in this subject matter and in this particular way. It's a heist film. It's an entertaining movie. What do you think that movie should be? How do you feel like we should be representing the issue of climate change? And, you know, what are your greatest fears of this project - and would kind of take that in to the process very early in development, before we had any characters, before we even had a story. You know, Ariela was the one who kind of, you know, put those pieces together, and we kind of said, you know, these are the eight characters that I think feel like they kind of capture those conversations we've had at their best.

FLORIDO: The movie was inspired by a book, "How To Blow Up A Pipeline," which advocates for violent property destruction as a tactic. Your movie is not a direct adaptation and doesn't really make that argument. It's more of an action film, like you said. It's a heist film. And the tension really centers around, you know, this cast of characters' mission to blow up this pipeline without getting caught. But, Ariela, did you want people to grapple with sort of the deeper moral question that inspired it, you know, which is what is the right way to protest?

BARER: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. You don't adapt a book like that without taking those questions and those arguments very seriously. And I think for me personally in the writing process, I was grappling with it myself and was writing the sort of tension between two of the main characters, Xochitl and Alisha, that is very much that question.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE")

BARER: (As Xochitl) We have a right to defend ourselves. We could set a new legal precedent, and if we get off, more people follow, more bombs happen, fossil fuel gets priced out of the market.

JAYME LAWSON: (As Alisha) People are out there doing the work, and you just want to come in and say [expletive]. This flashy s*** is pure ego.

GOLDHABER: I would also take issue kind of initially with the way you characterize the argumentation of the book, that its calling for violent property destruction. I think that one of the things the movie is grappling with is this question of whether or not the destruction of fossil fuel infrastructure is violence. For the eight characters that the movie follows, this is an act of self-defense. We don't call the existence of a fossil fuel plant, of a fossil fuel refinery a violent piece of property, but that is nevertheless a piece of property that creates mass death and mass destruction. And so I think that one of the fundamental things that we are interrogating in the film through the eyes and the experiences of our characters is this fundamental question of, what is that line?

BARER: Well, so when we initially picked up this book, we had the conversation pretty point blank of is this going to be a piece of propaganda? Is this going to be something that we are telling people to do, that we endorse, et cetera? And I was very much the one from the beginning that hesitated a lot with that. And I wanted to explore kind of the consequences of an action like this as well because this would directly affect people in the real world. And when we brought this up to Andreas, he completely agreed that we should incorporate criticisms. He started sending us criticisms of his own book, just being like, this one's great, actually, you should look into this.

And so with those criticisms and with sort of the conversations we were having about whether or not it would be responsible to completely endorse an action like this or to completely do this or how we would feel if something like this actually happened tomorrow, that just kind of became what the characters were discussing and going through. And we were all writing these characters from such a personal place that these conversations became completely organic to the characters and I think leaves the movie with a much richer perspective than had we just decided to do the propaganda piece.

FLORIDO: Were you surprised that Andreas Malm, the author of the book, was so willing to engage with the criticism and actually have it represented in your movie?

GOLDHABER: I don't think you write a manifesto and not expect people to take issue with it. And I think that Andreas is somebody who is extremely bright and extremely aware of the way that he is operating in the field of - you know, in the case of the book. It's a leftist text. It's for a particular kind of audience that engages with these political ideas in a particular way. And this is a movie that's very different. This is a pop movie. This is something that is intended for a mainstream audience, and this is a piece of entertainment. And so our responsibilities and the way that we are - you know, the way that we need to engage in political discourse in the film is also different. And that's the goal of the film writ large is not just to make a super fun, you know, entertaining movie but to also hopefully provoke a conversation around this question of what kind of tactics are necessary and defensible to prevent a climate apocalypse.

FLORIDO: There's a scene in the movie where one of the characters is working on a documentary film about the pipeline...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE")

SAM QUINN: (As Geoff) OK, so take me back to that moment.

FLORIDO: ...And sort of comes to this understanding as he's doing that, that making a film isn't really going to do much other than bring more emotional pain to the people he's interviewing...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I mean, this is our lives. We lost our home.

FLORIDO: ...Because it's not going to stop the pipeline, you know? Have you guys thought about that as filmmakers?

BARER: That was very much a sort of reflection of our position in this larger movement, what making this movie would mean to people and also sort of a criticism of the sort of ego and self-importance that goes into doing something like this. Both that scene and the character of Xochitl being played by me as the author were very much our own criticisms and reflections of our roles of this.

GOLDHABER: And my - I got my start in film working on climate documentary. There's also this specific issue when it comes to how documentarians engage with their subjects that I also think that we wanted to reflect on, especially this question of activist filmmaking and activist documentary making and wanting to recognize and acknowledge to the audience that we are just aware of the shortcomings of this just being a movie and not a piece of activism.

FLORIDO: The movie is "How To Blow Up A Pipeline." Director Daniel Goldhaber and writer and producer Ariela Barer, thanks for joining me.

GOLDHABER: Thank you.

BARER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.