When you choose a grandiose title like How the Change the World, it brings expectations of earth-shattering moments that permanently modified our thinking. It’s a tall order to come close to matching those aspirations. The idealistic guys who started Greenpeace and energized the environmental movement might fit the bill, however. A shot of Paul Watson riding a whale as it bleeds to death is quite a powerful image. This experience changed his life and led to future activism that continues today. Watson is the angry voice in Jerry Rothwell’s new documentary who doesn’t believe in compromise. Peaceful protest has its limits and doesn’t go far enough in his mind. While he is known these days for the show Whale Wars, his fiery persona goes back to his Greenpeace experiences in the early ‘70s.

Rothwell uses a wide array of video footage to put us inside the ship that protested Amchitka nuclear testing and expanded into stopping the whalers. A strangely quiet Barry Pepper voices the late Bob Hunter, who passed away in 2005, a Canadian journalist who co-founded Greenpeace in 1971. His team is hardly a fierce bunch and resembles late ‘60s hippies with their minds in the clouds. Hunter understood the importance of visual media and its ability to convey their statement to a larger audience. By presenting the same controversial footage that Hunter’s team used to get their message across, Rothwell makes a case that goes beyond selling Hunter’s importance. The grisly shots of whales and seals place the onus on the audience to break out of our comfort zones and act.

How to Change the World gets a little bogged down when the focus shifts more to the individuals on the ship. Rothwell has great footage, but it sometimes feels unnecessary to capture the low-key moments. It’s a tricky balance to give us insight about the people involved without losing the momentum. I wasn’t interested in learning about their random behaviors and preferred the focus on their message. There is a stark contrast between the idealistic positivity of the early scenes with the talk of getting “organized” in the last act. Greenpeace didn’t begin with intentions of becoming a gigantic organization, and it’s hard to stay on the ground when building such a group. The organization continues doing important work but can’t recapture the loose ‘70s atmosphere conveyed through much of this film.

Even so, there’s a real feeling of loss during the segments covering the political in-fighting that changed Greenpeace forever. Watson’s comment that Greenpeace was more effective with no money or resources than it is with millions is fitting. The most fascinating change is found in former Greenpeace member Patrick Moore, who transforms from activist to climate change denier. The interviews with Moore show that he’s still hurt by his experiences leading the organization, and watching videos of him spouting conservative rhetoric is stunning. Moore’s example shows how politics can infect any group, even when the cause feels right. It isn’t clear whether Moore is an opportunist or really believes what he’s saying, but it all hearkens back to conflicts that are several decades old. Rothwell reminds us of a different time where a small group could impact the world. Whether that’s still possible today is another question.

Sunday, April 26, 1:00 PM, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Monday, April 27, 9:30 PM, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

Tickets can be purchased at the Hot Docs website.