Who is Greta Thunberg? This carefully crafted documentary manages to show a very nuanced and moving portrait of a young Swedish girl driven by sheer will to save the planet.
Greta Thunberg has been described in the press and on social media with all the superlatives you can imagine, or has been condemned mercilessly. She has been welcomed as a new saviour and the leader of her generation, but has also been branded a demon and an entitled little brat. Conservative politicial commentator Michael Knowles referred to her on Fox News in 2019 as “a selfish mentally ill Swedish child who is being exploited by her parents.”
But Greta Thunberg is nothing more, nothing less than a bright, a very bright, young girl with Asperger’s (no thank you, she doesn’t ‘suffer’ from it) who uses her remarkable gifts for the cause she chose to hyper-focus on.
Or, she didn’t really choose it, it chose her – as she explains from her original philosophical viewpoint: “Humans are pack animals. In a pack everyone has a different role […] If you see a threat it is your responsibility to sound the alarm. And I feel this is somehow my responsibility.”
Director Nathan Grossman had the incredibly good fortune to be by Greta Thunberg’s side on her rise to unwanted stardom. The documentary may start and end on the sailing boat that brings Greta across the Atlantic to the annual United Nations Action Climate Summit in New York, where she addresses the General Assembly, when she is at the height of her fame, but only a year before she was engaging in a solitary climate strike in front of the parliament building in Stockholm.
It is there Nathan Grossman started to film her – sitting by herself curled up against the wall, calmly discussing her goals with agitated adult passers-by. It is not long before people start following her example and the press get wind of her actions.
It all seems to happen in just one day, and in the following scenes we get to know Greta when she’s back home, with her parents, who are in equal part proud of and worried about the developments around their daughter. The camera hardly ever leaves Greta and respectfully observes her while she’s both being a teenager – looking after her dogs and horse and dancing around the house – and leading a youth movement, writing speeches and representing the concerns of young people, voicing their anger all around the world.
We see her reactions when climate deniers and right wing press spew their venom, while in cities around the globe millions are walking the streets to demand action. Her father is always there by her side to pick her up when she’s feeling miserable and to make sure that she eats. In between the scenes of Greta talking, traveling and being at home, Grossman has cleverly edited footage of strikes, summits, news and interviews with Greta without interrupting the flow and rhythm of the film.
Grossman deserves enormous credit for finding his story, winning Greta’s (and her family’s) trust, getting as close as he did and making us forget he’s even there. Everywhere. Travelling to all the summits and meetings where Greta is applauded, where world leaders want to take selfies only to go back to business as usual as soon as she leaves the stage and her microphone is turned off. (During a speech in which Jean-Claude Juncker drones on about toilet flushes, Grossman records her disappointment and disgust and removes her translating headphones.)
The director is also close when she’s attending climate strikes and meeting her peers and soul-mates. People go crazy for her, want to shake hands, shout declarations of love, but not even once does her ego become inflated. She looks at it in wonder, does her job and then returns to the safe environment of her house and family.
It is only half way through her courageous journey across the ocean that you realise that Grossman is also on board the tiny ship, enduring the extremely rough waves. Even there he manages to get beautiful shots of Greta, leaning against the side of the boat, feeling nauseous and overwhelmed but determined at the same time. He may not have intended it but the boat ride serves as a metaphor for Greta’s wild year upon the crazy ocean of stardom, where hype has been blowing her onwards like a storm, with no time to rest or reflect.
I am Greta is not just about a Swedish schoolgirl called Greta Thunberg. It is also about climate change, of course. And it is also about how mankind’s craving for leadership and superhuman role models can catapult anyone into fame. And about how fame has its own disturbing dynamics, which have absolutely nothing to do with the actual person in the midst of it. It is about the love of a family, about the hopes of one generation and the opportunist cynicism of another. And it gives insight in Asperger’s, the condition that allows Greta to fully concentrate on one topic, not to be distracted by ego or popularity and to not be impressed by status.
As Greta puts it: “Maybe the world needs more people with Asperger’s.” I for one, would agree. And maybe the world needs more filmmakers like Nathan Grossman, who has made a movie that everyone should watch. Especially as the world seems to have already forgotten about Greta, the world leaders have not even started to fulfil their cheap promises, and time’s running out even faster.