by Alberto Sclaverano for Citiplat
Since its premiere at the September 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, Daniel Goldhaber’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline has generated several debates and can be called without doubt the most controversial movie about climate change ever made.
It was given a limited theatrical release in the United States and other territories in spring 2023 and then made available on VOD platforms all around the world during the following months. It is based on Andreas Malm’s 2018 nonfiction book How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire, which drew the same level of controversy when it was published.
Malm, a Swedish associate professor of Human Ecology at Lund University and long-time climate activist, took a radical stance, arguing in favor of acts of sabotage as a legitimate instrument to save the planet from the ongoing climate crisis. He condemned the practice of absolute nonviolence presented in some parts of the global climate movement and sided strongly with the actions of groups such as Extinction Rebellion (which has used this form of activism mainly in the past, not now) and Last Generation (mainly active in Italy and Germany, and still committed to a radical form of protests than can involve roads blockades and coloring monuments).
Malm went beyond, to the point of defending real acts of sabotage against infrastructures that caused damage to the environment. If we think about the long debate about the Dakota Access Pipeline and the harsh protests staged during its construction, we can clearly understand the types of acts Professor Malm regards as acceptable.
The book caught the attention of Goldhaber, an American independent filmmaker who had recently risen to fame due to Cam, a horror movie that took place in the work environment of camgirls. It was acclaimed by some critics and Netflix bought it and rereleased it worldwide in 2018.
Goldhaber co-wrote and directed How to Blow Up a Pipeline, again working in the independent cinema and with a small budget. Its more radical artistic choice is to stage the story as an action eco-thriller.
First, it shows how the main characters meet each other, and the reasons why each of them is deeply angered by the climate crisis, even in certain cases due to personal tragedies, and frustrated by traditional activism.
Then the movie follows them as they decide to choose more radical methods, and finally deals with the execution of a true act of sabotage against a section of a recently constructed Texas oil pipeline.
Goldhaber never judges his characters, instead shows through their meetings and discussions how they come to the conclusion that the nonviolent way failed, and the climate crisis is so serious that it authorizes more extreme forms of protest. By doing so, the director exposes us to Malm’s theories about the rejection of the “Gandhian approach” and the necessity to use every means possible to act. But at the same time, the movie remains always committed to its thriller structure, and the genre film mechanism never translates it into a documentary-like experience, nor does the director seem to explicitly endorse what he is showing to us.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a complex, ambiguous moviegoing experience. It tests our ethical limits and invites us to reflect on the line that divides legality and illegality in activism. If we think about the debates around Last Generation’s actions and the critique from people who see them as criminals who put the preservation of works of art at risk, we can understand the scope of the provocation contained in Goldhaber’s movie, and in the Malm’s theories that inspired it.
But even for people who understandably reject them, and I am not talking about Last Generation and Extinction Rebellion’s activism, instead of acts like the ones shown in the movie, one key question remains. And I think it can make almost everyone a bit uncomfortable: If the climate crisis is the most serious issue of our times, and the greatest threat to humankind and the Earth’s ecosystem survival, is it correct to deem certain actions as completely unacceptable?
The action/thriller structure of the film does not provide us with an answer, and I believe this aspect makes it way more effective than the book, which simply exposes a thesis. Often critics and intellectuals lament that our societies have become too sensitive and that controversial movies like the ones that were popular in the XX century cannot be made today. Well, we can all agree that this is not a problem that affects How to Blow Up a Pipeline.
Editor’s note: Citiplat has some answers: 1) Certain actions are completely unacceptable because go against the substance of the new paradigms are looking for: fair and just ways of producing, consuming and living together. 2) Dramatic as it is, the climate crisis is an effect. 3) Malm’s provocation could harm the climate change movement. 4) Finally and coherent with the previous points, we are contrary to any form of censorship.