With “I Am Greta”, director Nathan Grossman delivers an intimate and touching portrait of Greta Thunberg, despite herself a symbol of a youth eager to repair the world. A documentary that reveals the young woman behind the icon.
It was in a Stockholm street that Nathan Grossman first met Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old Swedish student who had gone on a school strike for the climate. Thinking of following it for a few days to possibly feed a short documentary, the director has no idea of the extent of his commitment …
From the Swedish Parliament to the United Nations summit on climate action, including a grueling sailing trip, the filmmaker was able to closely follow the young woman who has become an icon of activism. With I Am Greta, he delivers an intimate, touching, human portrait which deconstructs the media image of the “Greta phenomenon” and recreates the journey of a schoolgirl who just wanted to do her part to fix the world.
Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old high school student, can no longer bear to stand idly by in the face of climate change. She began a school strike alone in front of the Swedish Parliament. A few people join her, then hundreds, and soon hundreds of thousands more. With boundless determination, she challenges politicians around the world and fights against the cowardice of their decisions motivated by economic issues. In the space of a few months, Greta becomes a global icon and the spokesperson for millions of young people who want to make tomorrow a better world.
AlloCiné: How did you cross paths with Greta Thunberg? What memories do you keep of your first meeting?
Nathan Grossman (director): A friend who knew Greta and her family told me about her and the fact that she was going to make a small demonstration in front of the Swedish parliament. I went down on reconnaissance to see who this young girl was … I remember her as a very shy but pointed young woman: she already had a clear way of talking about climate change at the time.
How did you convince her to accept your camera?
I think one of our luxuries, as documentary filmmakers, is being able to stay with people for a long time. We don’t need to publish quickly and thus can gain trust and get closer to the protagonist. I told Greta (and her family as she was underage when I made the movie) that I was deeply interested in understanding her inner world, how she perceived the frenzy around her. I think she found it interesting to let someone present her different sides.
Exactly, as a filmmaker, how did you experience this frenzy and this Greta Thunberg phenomenon, and the fact of seeing a discreet young woman become a global symbol?
As far as I met Greta before she was famous, or a “freak”, I have always continued to see her as a young schoolgirl. So it was a very special experience to see how his words spread. I had to pinch my arm several times: does this really happen? Is this schoolgirl really standing next to the Pope?
She also gave powerful speeches to top leaders. How did you experience these moments while being part of his intimate circle?
I was still surprised she wasn’t nervous! I get nervous every time I have to speak on behalf of a lot of people, but she has remained calm.
How do you explain that Greta has federated so much around her message? And how do you explain, as your film shows a bit, that there are also so many people who choose to hate her?
I think it comes from the same quality at Greta. She knows how to express herself very well, in a short and concise manner. Myself, as I have to do interviews, I often envy him! This makes his message very direct and easy to understand. And I think it provokes people who don’t want to discuss the facts and figures around climate change.
Some scenes in the film, such as his logbook during the sailing trip to New York, bear witness to the weight resting on his shoulders. A weight that she did not ask to carry …
As much as the film is about climate change, so much is it about Greta’s personal story. Many people who saw the film had this deep feeling that she and these young activists shouldn’t have to carry this burden on their shoulders. And of course, it’s up to the adult world to help bring big questions like this. We all know it is much easier to carry a sofa with more arms, if I may put it that way.
It is indeed an intimate portrait of Greta. What can you tell us about the young woman behind the public figure?
One day, while I was filming, someone asked me “Can Greta laugh?”. I think many see her as a very serious and angry person. But the one I knew has so much humor! It’s a bit British, dry and ironic. His laughter is very high-pitched, he has driven sound designers crazy!
What did she think of the film?
I’ve always been very clear with her: to make this film, I had to make my own choices. However, I gave her the opportunity to watch the final cut and have a discussion if she sensed that I had misinterpreted something about her inner thoughts. But her reaction was actually that she recognized herself for the first time on screen. That she often felt simplified in the media but that it showed her “like the nerd that I am”.
Documentaries on climate change are more and more exposed, as in Cannes during the last Festival. Do you think cinema can help change the world?
I will take the image of the sofa again. No single profession can handle this problem on its own, but filmmaking can certainly be a small hand in helping people understand it and understand its impacts.