We begin on footage of forests burning, of flooding, of climate refugees in a desperate struggle for safety. Over the carnage we hear recordings of world leaders and political commentators denying the problem – falsely arguing that CO2 being released into the atmosphere makes negligible difference on the climate or how ‘global warming is good, actually’. We then cut to footage of Greta on a small boat sailing across a tumultuous ocean, as she remarks on her life as being like a particularly bad movie. She’s not the one being naïve. Her uniquely autism-inspired message that as part of nature, surely humans should be talking about nothing other than safeguarding the natural world, makes perfect sense when presented in such stark terms.
Contrasted against images of powerful adults underestimating the scale of the problem, or else proposing spurious solutions to do with lightbulbs, her uniquely autistic messages of ‘survival or extinction’ are shown be ‘that simple’. She’s not the one being childish, our leaders are! There are other moments where she is shown to get emotional during speeches. When asked why she reacted in that way afterwards she simply relays the content: entire species disappearing, rainforests being plundered for the natural resources, and a human race whose future remains in the balance – how could anybody not feel like crying when faced with those realties?
One of the starkest moments comes when Greta describes falling into depression at the age of 11, faced with the reality of the climate crisis. Accompanied by her father – who is shown as a constant source of support, but by no means control – she describes how she stopped talking to anyone, stopped eating and lost unhealthy amounts of weight. Soon after, she was diagnosed with Autism, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Selective Mutism – a condition by which you only speak in certain circumstances or, vitally, when necessary. Her reaction when she realised that there is a climate crisis speaks to the way autistic people react when confronted with a wicked problem. Many of us can’t passively observe while millions suffer, or ecosystems die. There’s a very real emotional reaction we can have to staring these seemingly insurmountable challenges in the face. They can lead us to become sad, depressed or motivate us to action. This documentary doesn’t present this as anything strange.
“We aren’t very good at lying, and we usually don’t enjoy participating in this social game that the rest of you seem so fond of. I think in many ways that we autistic are the normal ones, and the rest of the people are pretty strange, especially when it comes to the sustainability crisis, where everyone keeps saying climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all, and yet they just carry on like before”Greta Thunberg, TED Talk
Of course, now at the age of 18, Greta has already achieved something few teenagers ever accomplish – make thousands of grown men unreasonably angry at her. There’s one scene where she’s joyously mocking mean comments. Many of the criticisms levelled at Greta are through an “ableist gaze”. Ideas of her being ‘mentally ill’ are repeated in compilations of all the media pundits who have levelled hate against Thunberg, as is the idea that she ‘can’t understand’ the world. Scarily, these are accusations most autistics have experienced at some point. Others bully her for her tone of voice or her facial expressions – Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro among them. The idea here is that a few very rich and powerful individuals have held a grip over natural resources and are now challenged by those who think differently from them, demanding that they stop treating the natural world as a ‘bottomless sweet jar’. Even when speaking at conferences, Greta feels patronised and ignored. Looking at the meagre “solutions” presented in response to her speeches (“We’re making toilet flushes more energy efficient”) its’ hard not to understand her frustration. For those people, liberal or alt-right, Greta has a very simple message which she delivers at the UN summit “Change is coming, whether you want that or not”.
A lot of the film focuses on Greta’s relationship with her dad, who has a large role in helping her with a lot of her activities. Equally though, we see how laughably far from the truth the claims that Thunberg is being put up to her activism by her parents are. ‘When she told me that she planned to skip school and sit outside the Swedish parliament, I said I wouldn’t support her’ says her father at the beginning of the film. Indeed, thinking about the documentary in terms of character development, his is very interesting in that he begins the film with the same reservations as those who come up to Greta on the street to ask why she is in school, and becomes gradually more sympathetic to the line that asks “why study for our future, if we might not even have one?”. There are moments where he gets overly interventionist as a parent, for example by encouraging Greta to stop using language like “sixth mass extinction”, to which she makes clear the importance and accuracy of those words. There are other moments where he is more sensible such as when he begs Greta to please eat her lunch before going on stage. As an autistic person watching, I find a great deal of relatability in these scenes. They show us that this is a distinctly human story and reminds us of the personal passions and experiences which compel people to try and change their world.
Part of the reason this film is so effective in its personable and non-aggressive approach is the fly-on-the-wall technique whereby the camera simply follows Greta through her day to day activities, allowing her to narrate. In fact, while many others treat her like a celebrity, she doesn’t treat herself like one. She makes clear on several occasions that the glitz and glamour, the fancy palaces she gets invited to and the wild receptions are all meaningless, unless the problems she’s addressing can be remedied. She has very little to prove beyond her cause, and all the proof needed for that is already there, if people would care to listen. In one moment, she’s meeting a friend and joking about how she can’t plan anything just in case she’s invited to speak to another conference or protest about a message which should be incredibly obvious by now.
Of course, there are moments where these sentiments are expressed with more anger and frustration. The camera even accompanies her aboard the ship that she and her father used to sail to America to speak to world leaders – she doesn’t want to be someone that says something and does the opposite. In an emotional sequence, we see waves batter the tiny boat as Greta talks about missing her friends, of wanting a normal life, yet not being able to have one as she values the opportunity to make a difference above her wants her needs. This portrays the tiredness, the stress and dislocation that led to that widely shared quote we saw amplified across our screens – ‘you have stolen my childhood. How dare you!’
Think about that last quote. She could have been ‘professional’ and given an eloquent and polite speech. Instead, her autism and ways of thinking about the world compelled her to express herself honestly, and in doing so break the steotypical image of how people on those platforms are supposed to behave. As she said before, she’s not interested in the social games we all seem so fond of. The situation is far too serious for that.
Its explained very early in the film that as someone on the spectrum, Greta likes a sense of certainty and routine. Climate change provides the human race with neither of those. That’s why whether she wants to hear it or not, Greta is quite brave for defying some of the challenges which can come with autism and placing herself outside of her comfort zone. And no, not everything Thunberg says guarantees to make you comfortable or happy about yourself. That’s why the underlying message of this movie is not simply one of a girl who skipped school to protest or even one of environmentalism. Rather, that in order to make a difference, you sometimes need to step outside of the places and routines you feel most safe in. Indeed, that’s not just a message we could do with learning with regard to the natural world, but with regard to autism! In one moment, which made me grin from ear to ear, an interview asserts that Thunberg “suffers from autism” as is the agreed upon terminology for much of the media. Proudly and politely, the teenage activist corrects him: “I wouldn’t say I suffer…I am autistic”. Even through all the uncertainty she’s endured, she still sees her autism as her ‘superpower’ because she likely wouldn’t have had the creativity and drive do a lot of her work if she wasn’t ‘atypical’. Perhaps we should all be a little autistic, in that sense!
I Am Greta is currently available to view on BBC iPlayer and Hulu