Greta Thunberg Takes On Her Conspiracy Theorists in New Film
A new documentary about the Swedish child climate activist Greta Thunberg debuting at the Venice Film Festival chronicles her mission and the high cost of fame.
VENICE—The opening scene of a new biopic on climate wonder child Greta Thunberg will pique the interest of conspiracy theorists who have long floated the idea that the Swedish student is a puppet for a larger force. In the opening scene of her new biopic I am Greta, a professional camera crew (read: not an iPhone or shaky home video), follows the young Swede as she conducts her first sit-in in front of the Swedish Parliament Hall with her hand-written sign that said, “School Strike for Climate.” It was before her movement went global, and it begs the question why a professional film crew would have possibly been interested in the antics of one young girl acting alone.
But Nathan Grossman, the Hulu director whose 100-minute documentary debuted at the scaled-down Venice Film Festival Thursday night, told reporters on Friday that he was working on a documentary about environmental activism and someone told him that the then 15-year-old was going to strike in front of parliament. “It was a long shot to see where it could head,” Grossman said. “Then I continued that wave of just following her, because I like that style of doc filmmaking.”
As he spoke at the official press briefing Friday in Venice, a giant Zoom screen above him showed Thunberg looking on as he spoke. She wasn’t quite as optimistic. “It was very spontaneous. He didn’t seem very professional,” she said. “It was just him and no sound man or anything.”
But she let him shoot 100 hours of film, tagging along on her European tour last year and on the sailboat that took her to the U.N. Climate Action Summit last fall. And what he revealed was not a naive child who is being manipulated by anyone, but a passionate girl doing well managing Asperger Syndrome, whose struggles with depression and food are not so different from a lot of other teens doing far less than she is.
She comes off as such an unlikely hero, constantly disappointed that some world leader has again used her for a photo opp but then does nothing on the promises made to her. Her father Svante Thunberg plays a supporting role in the documentary, but unlike what many conspiracy theorists like to think, he is not portrayed as the puppeteer, but an extremely concerned parent trying to make sure no one hurts his daughter.
Several times, he comes down hard on her, disallowing her to join throngs of protesters unless she eats something, at least a banana, which she sits and pouts and chomps down so she can go back out. Many people on the autism spectrum as she is have complicated relationships with food. Hers is made more so by a stubbornness that is both charming and difficult for her father to manage.
Several scenes show her father trying to tone down her speeches, which will disappoint the conspiracy theorists who believe someone writes them for her. He tells her, “You cannot say that to the president of France,” and “You cannot scold the head of the U.N.” Each time she argues with him and taps out an impassioned speech against his better judgment. “It really shows that some people say that I don’t think for myself, or I don’t speak for myself, or someone else writes my speeches. In the movie you can see that’s not actually true,” she said Friday. “You did succeed in framing me as myself and not the angry naive child who sits in the United Nations General Assembly screaming at world leaders.”
Between her protest appearances and world stage speaking gigs, she dances, giggles, and bonds with her dogs and horse, acting as if she’s never been on the cover of Time magazine or named one of Forbes’ Most Powerful Women. But she also reads all the criticism about her, sitting on a picnic table scanning Twitter on her iPhone for the worst that is said. Grossman also folds in scenes of world leaders condemning her, calling her a mentally ill Swedish girl, and President Donald Trump getting the audience of one of his pre-COVID rallies to boo her. Watching her take it in is painful. So are the scenes when she is swept up in large crowds chanting “Greta! Greta!” She seems unable to cope with all that is going on around her. Grossman captures her at her strongest as she speaks at various major venues, but also at her most vulnerable.
In a scene aboard the racing sailboat that takes her to New York, she cannot hold back her tears. Every parent in the audience will undoubtedly want to just give her a hug, to make it all better and try to comfort her.
In some ways, the good she has done in terms of drawing attention to the global climate crisis is unimaginable for a young girl from Sweden who just got depressed and obsessed about the issue. In other ways, it almost seems like she is being sacrificed for the good of the planet. It’s hard to comprehend how much longer she can sustain the pace of her fame, or the pressure from her haters.
When asked if she liked herself in the film, she said she was at first worried that Grossman had so much footage he could make her seem something different from what she was. But when she saw the final cut, she was pleased. “He definitely made me seem like more a shy, nerdy person, which is the person that I am,” she said. “It shouldn’t be too much focus on me as an individual, which it has been so far. This is too much for children to communicate this crisis.”