A typical environmental documentary spends the first 90 percent of its running time explaining the dire nature of the particular problem it explores, and the last 10 percent attempting to offer a semblance of hope by indicating a glimmer of positive trends or encouraging the viewer to take some individual, largely symbolic action, be it recycling more or simply remembering to vote.
This isn’t meant to denigrate the many fine, dedicated filmmakers who have devoted their careers to exposing the catastrophic situation in which our planet, and by extension our species, finds itself. After all, it makes sense neither commercially nor politically to leave audiences feeling hopeless. But it’s rare to see an environmental doc that actually tells a story of triumph, if not over the larger forces imperiling the Earth, then at least over one tiny aspect of them.
Portland-based filmmaker Jan Haaken’s latest documentary, Necessity: Climate Justice and the Thin Green Line, is just such a film. It tracks the efforts by a diverse group of activists to prevent trains loaded with oil from passing through the Columbia Gorge. As the derailment of one such train in the town of Mosier in 2016 demonstrated, the transport of this volatile cargo presents risks that the communities along the tracks may not be adequately prepared for. And, of course, the extraction and eventual burning of these products contributes to climate change.
For these reasons, activists associated with the Extinction Rebellion movement staged a direct action in the Portland railyard of Zenith Energy, erecting a small garden on a set of tracks and refusing to allow locomotives past. Facing charges of trespassing, they used a novel legal theory involving the affirmative defense of necessity. (It’s the same defense one would have to, say, breaking into a burning building to save a child, only here the burning building is the transport of dirty fuels and the child is humanity.)
Haaken’s multi-focal approach includes the efforts of a remarkable coalition of Indigenous activists and organized labor to further inhibit the passage of Zenith’s trains through the Gorge. This sort of intersectional, (spoiler alert) effective work is an inspiring example of nonviolent civil disobedience actually succeeding.
This isn’t the first time Haaken has explored the climate necessity defense. Her previous film, Necessity: Oil, Water, and Climate Resistance, focuses on efforts to use the same legal defense for actions taken to disrupt the building of new pipelines across Native lands in the Midwest. Haaken, a professor emeritus of psychology at Portland State University, has had a thriving nonfiction filmmaking career for decades, with topics ranging from drag performers to abortion doctors. I had a chance to speak with her the day after our region’s summerlike day last week, during which we lamented how climate change has robbed us of the ability to innocently take pleasure in an unseasonably warm spring day.
Q: How do these two Necessity films fit into your ongoing documentary project?
A: If you look at my filmography, you see a lot of topics that may not on the face of it seem to be related. But there’s a thread that runs through them. They all grew out of the field research I’ve carried out over the past thirty years. That research looked at people who had difficult jobs, or were carrying out difficult work, that had some element of controversy. They often involve tending to people in crisis settings.
So your documentaries are an extension of your academic work.
I bring the lens of psychology, only using a camera instead of writing up field reports. Using cameras allows you to capture more of the language of people—not just their words, but other forms of language. I think of documentary projects as ways of getting people to look at work that’s generally not valued, and to address anxieties and prejudices people have toward them.
What about climate activists fits into that framework?
There are a lot of stereotypes about people who commit acts of civil disobedience. There’s this image in recent years that people who engage in direct action are running amok, creating chaos. But there’s a tremendous amount of thought, planning, and intentionality behind acts of civil disobedience and social movements. As an educator as well as a documentary filmmaker, I’m very committed to helping people to look in a more thoughtful way towards this work that’s often dismissed as being not particularly skilled.
This isn’t the first time you’ve focused on strategies used by defense lawyers to help protect vulnerable or misunderstood populations, right?
Right; one of my earlier films was about the use of the insanity defense, which is also rarely understood and is seen to be just a way to get out of prison. So I wanted to look at the ways people got into the hospital with that plea, and the difference between a prison and a hospital. For instance, many of the patients I profiled in that film were in the hospital for over 20 years, whereas if they’d been convicted, they wouldn’t have served nearly that long.
How did you get interested in the climate necessity defense?
In 2018, I was invited to follow a jury trial in Minnesota and my question was, what is this strategy that was being used by people who had tried to shut down the oil pipelines as a response to the call from the Standing Rock insurgency. Not only the necessity defense, but the invocation of treaty rights by Indigenous people.
Those rights are also involved in the Zenith Energy protests, and one of the best things about the new film is its depiction of a seemingly unlikely alliance between Indigenous people and blue-collar organized labor. What was your approach to capturing that?
For me as a white person, there is a question in both of these films about allyship. How do we both recognize the particular losses of and violence against tribal and Native peoples, and also build alliances with these communities, and how do these alliances get formed in the context of working together around a common enemy. I would not want to gloss over the differences, including differences in the suffering people have endured, or how palpable their risk is, but there’s something very gratifying about joining with others around a common cause.
This is a story without a lead protagonist. Did you feel any pressure when crafting the film’s narrative to mold it in that direction?
I’ve always been more interested in the psychology of groups, as opposed to heroic individuals. Films often focus on that as the basic narrative structure: There’s a challenge where the hero is tested (it’s usually a him), his vulnerabilities are exposed, and then the hero meets that challenge in a new test of his powers and triumphs. There are legitimate roles for heroes, in life and in movements, but it can also lead to a regressive stance, waiting for the hero to do something about it. When you’re working with groups, and when there’s not a satisfying denouement—this is an ongoing struggle—the challenge is in drawing people into the possibilities of history.
Necessity: Climate Justice and the Thin Green Line screens at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 17, at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland. Director Jan Haaken and some of the student activists shown in the film will be in attendance for a post-film Q&A.