An Act Of Self-Defence: How To Blow Up A Pipeline Interview

Cici Peng speaks to director Daniel Goldhaber about his explosive green heist movie

“This is an act of self-defence,” says one of How To Blow Up A Pipeline‘s rag tag group of characters Xochit by way of explaining their self-explanatory act of sabotage. What does it mean to destroy a supply network; to attack a system that does not have one perpetrator, or a visible enemy? Daniel Goldhaber, the director and Daniel Garber, the editor, argue for the sabotage of the machinery, of the visible infrastructure that poisons us and harms the environment, inspired by the political theory of Andrea Malm. The film transposes Malm’s manifesto for sabotage into a gripping, philosophical eco-thriller that looks to imagine new futures.

When I meet Goldhaber at Glasgow Film Festival, he is both reflective of the history of cinema and how activism can find a new lexicon through the cinematic lens. “I think that there can often be an over-reliance in the power of film or storytelling to change things, because ultimately making a movie is not a form of activism,” Goldhaber explains. “I’m not putting my body on the line for this cause. But I do think that there is value in creating the cultural context for moments of activism sabotage, so that there can be a lexicon, a new conversation and critique of the tactics that we’re engaging in.”

Goldhaber is thoughtful, choosing to speak of the film without any individual ownership of ideas and constantly references his team. The film itself argues for the collaborative community activism, of individuals coming together to create change through working together. The film is concerned with the process of labour – of how bodies work together to create resistance through their synchronised heaving, to the ticking score set against the trembling hands making a bomb, uncovering the process of sabotage and the work that goes into it.

The group aims to blow up a major pipeline in order to tank stock prices and create a shock to fuel consumption in the US. Composed of a mostly young but diverse team with distinctive backgrounds, the group’s history is relayed in a series of flashbacks which reveal a variety of reasons for extreme action.

Xochitl’s (Ariela Barer) mother died in a heat wave while she was at university while Theo (Sasha Lane), her childhood best friend, now has a rare, terminal leukaemia due to exposure to toxic air in their refinery town. Alisha (Jayme Lawson) is Theo’s reluctant partner. Shawn (Marcus Scribner) met Xochitl at university where he was equally frustrated with the lack of real generative action. Michael (Forrest Goodluck) from North Dakota is Native American, and has constantly been getting into fights with the miners and oil workers who’ve occupied his land. Dwayne (Jack Weary) seems an unlikely activist, a Republican ex-serviceman whose land is being taken from him to build the pipeline. Then, we have the less obvious duo Rowan (Kristine Frroseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage), a Bonnie & Clyde adrenaline-junkie couple seemingly obsessed with the thrill that activism can bring.

The film transposes the questions and disagreements generated by climate activism into the heist genre – an original and entertaining choice that pays homage to the legacy of ensemble films. It also introduces climate activism while paying tribute to the history of the Hollywood genre film: of man against the system. As Goldhaber explains: “Although capitalism is central to America’s ethos, the counter-culture of activism, fights for liberation and community have also always been central to American identity. This is an American film.”

Why a climate film? What inspired you?

Daniel Goldhaber: My parent worked in climate science, so I definitely grew up with the doom of climate crisis hanging over me. My first jobs in film [also] involved working on climate change documentaries, so it’s been part of my life since I was very young. Growing up, I was accustomed to being laughed out of the room for bringing up the climate crisis, but now, we are all talking about it and it’s important to think about what kind of conversations we can have about the reality of climate change, and how these massive systems of power can shift the way they do their business.

The inspiration for the film came from the political moment in February 2021, on the heels of a year of Covid lockdowns, protests and forest fires while I was living in LA. We were all feeling very politically and creatively powerless. So Jordan Sjol, the co-writer of the screenplay, was working on his PhD and wanted to adapt a work of political theory into film. He introduced the book by Andrea Malm to our co-writer Ariela Barber, the editor Daniel Garber and [myself]. While I was reading it, I had this image of young people in the desert and I thought, ‘Maybe there’s a heist film in here, a thriller, a process film.’ I had a real jolt of inspiration. After that, it was a question of thinking about our characters, and who would be part of a movement and moment like this.

The book does not actually teach you how to blow up a pipeline. Out of that, Ariela took that raw material and translated it into the opening ten minutes of the group leaving their lives behind and that really established the pace and rhythm of the film, as well as the ensemble of people we followed. Throughout the entire process, we were in constant conversation with Dan Garber and refined the ideas and approach, so it was a fully collective effort throughout the filmmaking process.

Why a heist film?

DG: The heist film grows out of the Western tradition. A lot of that has to do with framing an individual’s fight against oppression and a corrupt system. While the book introduced us to the historical basis of sabotage and property destruction in activism, we also thought of how closely this was tied to historical cinema in America. The heist film and the Western introduce the possibility of success and retaliation against a system. We wanted to create a film that could demystify the language of sabotage to viewers through familiar genres.

I’m interested in how the film explores time, both in the sense of a two-day heist and the geological time of the climate crisis. Can you tell me a bit about that through the lens of a heist film.

DG: I think time is something that cinema is uniquely equipped to address. But in terms of the magnitude of the climate crisis, it’s hard to depict it on-screen. The heist narrative holds the centre of the entire film, addressing the double sense of time running out in real time for the characters’ bomb as well as geologically. By having constant flashbacks into different character’s lives, we also tied the characters’ individual pasts to the present urgency of their collective action. We enter a past which becomes unbearable to the present of action in order to try [to] change the future. The film is concerned with thinking of the future, of imagining urgency within a crisis that has developed slowly over time due to its seeming invisibility until now.

The film does not prioritise any protagonist over another, but we see their individual stories weave together through the flashback and the present moment. Can you tell me a bit about creating a film centred on collectivity?

DG: The heist genre lends itself perfectly to the sense of collectivism, and we were riffing on Reservoir Dogs on some level as an ensemble film that takes time developing the characters together. Ocean’s 11 also takes little detours for individual players to strengthen their sense of unity in a single goal. I think it was looking at the way that people have done it in the past and re-think it through activism.

Yet, the team doesn’t always agree on their common motive, and we see them questioning each other.

DG: We wanted to show that activism is complicated, that different people have different reasons for sacrificing themselves and they’re never as morally pure or simplistic as we’d like them to be. We had both radical left-wing young activists and a character like Dwayne who’s a Republican. I know people like Dwayne who who share his conviction and people who might be surprised that they are from a different part of the political or cultural spectrum. I think that there has been really damaging messaging from corporate media that anybody who is a conservative, anybody who is a Republican in the US, doesn’t believe in climate change, which is often not the case. At the end of the day, climate change is something that affects everybody.

I’m also trying to channel the heist film, but not fall into the kind of standard hero worship tropes, but instead, trying to get under the hood as much as we can, with different, conflicting characters. But I think that there’s as much of a danger of idolising people in an overly simplistic way, as there is another common trope in movies like these where people are kind of so morally complicated as to be morally compromised, and this compromises the action of the film, like with First Reformed and Night Moves. And so I think for us, it was about finding a way to not be Hollywood fantasy wish fulfilment while also not falling into nihilism.

The film has many long shots that reveal a single character with the backdrop of industrial landscapes behind them – whether it’s Xochitl standing in front of a factory blowing out smoke or Michael framed against pipes before they blow up. It feels like a re-appropriation of romantic portraiture that exposes the sublime power of nature and man’s smallness against it. Can you tell me a bit about the choice?

DG: Both visually and narratively, we were always just trying to capture that dynamic of individuals working towards something bigger than themselves, as well as the immensity of the systems they were literally attempting to dismantle. It’s interesting to think of this in relation to nature, because capitalism dominates the landscape rather than nature, it’s the pipes and the factories that are dominating our landscapes. I think it’s important to think of the vastness of the infrastructures, of their tangibility.

The materiality of the infrastructure is directly linked to what I gleaned from Malm’s book. He writes about the historical basis of action: the roots of sabotage and property destruction. He takes that historical basis and asks: “If there’s a justification for escalation, what do we attack?” The problem is that there’s no one country, government or individual we can blame because we all participate within it to some extent. We all participate in using fossil fuels. The conclusion he draws in the book is that the infrastructure, the machines are killing us, that essentially there is a justification for the sabotage of that. And in that, there is a lot of hope and direction. One of the difficulties of climate change is asking helplessly, “What do I do?” Even the notion that there is something that could be done unlocks a lot of hope and other ideas.

How did you keep the film grounded as a narrative rather than propaganda, which is what ideology would push for it to be?

DG: When it started, I was in a very angry place and it was initially leaning towards propaganda. Ultimately, we realised that what we wanted most of all was to just get people thinking and talking about this question: if we’re kind of facing a climate apocalypse, what kind of tactics are going to be necessary to fight against it?

When you want to ask that question loudly, publicly and persuasively, you need to make it something that has lot of points of access, and also fundamentally that it’s a question. Propagandists don’t ask questions but, rather, present a moral certainty. Yet, we didn’t feel a sense of moral certainty in this, it is morally complicated. But this moral complexity needs to be explored. We know that there’s a trade-off, that there are consequences to actions like this. But, there are also justifications for actions like this, and we needed to explore it very urgently. It was really challenging as filmmakers and storytellers to thread that needle.

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