Some documentaries take its subject matter to heart which also involves probing and delicately unfolding it at the same time. Others are so determined to tell the story the right way that if the audience would make too much room for critical questioning, that would suffocate the chosen path’s freedom of expression. I Am Greta is of the latter kind. While its subject (17-year old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg) lends itself perfectly to such a documentarian approach, the interrelation between point of view and narrative construction makes it quite challenging to criticize the form without any repercussions for its content.
The director, Nathan Grossman, has admitted he had no idea how his cinematic endeavour would play out but apparently the editing stage assured enough space and time for him to arrange a narrative that aligned with both the current state of affairs and Greta’s prominence as both an activist and a public figure. Following Greta and her family from the very start – her one-person school strike in Stockholm in 2018 – Grossman already frames his kind of verité style of filmmaking within the socio-political sphere and the film does not shy away from becoming a suitable platform for Greta’s call for urgent climate change measures. Structured in a rather conventional way of sticking to its protagonist at all times, I Am Greta attends to both public and private spaces in a balanced, almost calculated manner. While it refrains itself from idealization, the film sprinkles just the right amount of vulnerability that is, nevertheless, pure and touching, to paint a portrait of its protagonist, no matter how much Greta herself would like to avoid that.
Indeed, this may be the most intuitive choice to convey Greta’s blunt expression and fearless activism in the face of the institutional and transnational shoulder-shrugging that she has encountered throughout 2019. I Am Greta covers the timespan of a whole year, in which she was consequently invited to the UN, EU Parliament and took her wind-powered voyage across the Atlantic. Her strive to expose the hopefulness underpinning statements such as “The future belongs to the children!” or “It’s up to you to make a change!” to be a mere construct that conceals the true dangers of governmental apathy is the central theme of the film, handled well by the director’s use of distance and proximity. For example, the camera is often left in the other room to observe, rather than attempting to bridge the distance between viewer and protagonist too soon. In this way, privacy is contained in a way that’s both respectful and suitable to the film form. The more potent directorial division comes with the way sound and image intertwine: oftentimes her voiceover accompanies unrelated footage from school lunches or family archive videos of Greta reciting the periodic table. Showcasing her routines, precise focus and attention to details, the film shows that her Asperger diagnosis has healthily integrated in both her lifestyle and sense for environmental urgency.
For a film that aligns with its protagonist’s polar world view (and she has been both praised and criticized for her brazenness and assertive speech), I Am Greta lays out a good entry point to the cause of youth environmental activism without glorifying its protagonist, even if it’s effectively named after her.
This review is from the 77th Venice International Film Festival. I Am Greta will be available to stream on Hulu November 13.
Savina Petkova is a Bulgarian freelance film critic based in London. Her bylines include MUBI Notebook, photogenie, Electric Ghost Magazine, Girls On Tops and Screen Queens.