This image released by Hulu shows activist Greta Thunberg in a scene from the documentary “I Am Greta.” The film premieres Friday on Hulu. (Hulu via AP)

This image released by Hulu shows activist Greta Thunberg in a scene from the documentary “I Am Greta.” The film premieres Friday on Hulu. (Hulu via AP)

Greta Thunberg on 2 very surreal years of protest and fame

‘I Am Greta,’ which debuts Friday on Hulu, is the first documentary to chart the meteoric rise of Thunberg

In the first days of Greta Thunberg’s solitary sidewalk protest outside Swedish Parliament in August 2018, most walk right past her. Some pause and ask why she’s not in school. But people steadily begin to take notice of the steadfast 16-year-old girl.

Those humble beginnings of Thunberg’s protest — the unlikely birth of a global movement — are seen in the opening minutes of the new documentary “I Am Greta.” Since then, Thunberg has met world leaders, been vilified by others, and seen countless join her in an ever-growing resistance to environmental complacency. It’s a journey she readily describes as totally surreal — “It’s like living in a movie and you don’t know the plot,” she says — but also affirming.

“I look back and I remember how it felt. I think: Oh, I was so young and naive back then — which is quite funny,” says Thunberg, recalling her first days of protest in an interview. “So much has changed for me since then but also so much hasn’t changed from the bigger perspective.”

“I feel like now I’m happier in my life,” she adds. “When you do something that’s meaningful, it gives you the feeling that you’re meaningful.”

“I Am Greta,” which debuts Friday on Hulu, is the first documentary to chart the meteoric rise of Thunberg from an anonymous, uncertain teen to an international activist. As an intimate chronicle of a singular figure, it plays like a coming-of-age story for someone who seemed, from the start, uncannily of age. The film, directed by Nathan Grossman, captures the head-spinning accomplishments, and the toll they sometimes take, on the bluntly impassioned Thunberg.

For an activist who insists on putting the cause before herself, it’s also a somewhat uncomfortable acceptance of the spotlight. “I haven’t really achieved anything,” Thunberg says, speaking by phone from Sweden. “Everything the movement has achieved.”

She doesn’t endorse everything about the documentary. It should come as no surprise that Thunberg, who has called her Asperger’s syndrome her “superpower” — a condition she believes only enhances her ability to be straightforward and focused — has a few notes.

“I don’t really like the title of the film, ‘I Am Greta.’ It makes it seem like I take myself very seriously,” says Thunberg. (In Sweden, the film is simply called “Greta,” but that title was recently taken by the 2018 Isabelle Huppert film.) “Also the poster. I look like I have make-up on. I don’t like the poster and the title.”

Grossman began filming Thunberg soon after she began protesting in August 2018, but he didn’t expect much from it. He told Thunberg he might not stick around for more than a few hours. He shot in half-resolution to save memory cards.

But as time went on, and young people around the world began following Thunberg’s lead, Grossman realized he had unwittingly captured the first moments of an unfolding zeitgeist. The project evolved and Grossman continued to shadow Thunberg up to her scorching speech at the United Nations in which she admonished world leaders: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you.”

“She felt that a movie about her could help clarify things,” says Grossman. “In the media, I think, she hasn’t felt that she recognized herself. The one-dimensional character of Greta is a very angry, frustrated girl. In the movie, you see so much more — that she’s also funny and has different sides.”

Part of the power of Thunberg is that, as a 17-year-old, she literally embodies a future imperiled by the inaction of older generations. “I Am Greta” is in a way a profile of generational divide, where adults and politicians line up to take selfies with a young woman who despite her stature sometimes struggles to get out of bed for an appointment or cries for home while sailing across the Atlantic.

But if Thunberg, Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2019, is recognizably human in “I Am Greta,” she’s also ruthlessly frank. She doesn’t mince words on Earth’s trajectory. She dismisses superficial gestures for change. And she shrugs off those who dismiss or mock her message. Asked how she felt watching news clips of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin deriding her in the film, Thunberg laughs.

“That’s one of the highlights! It’s hysterically funny,” Thunberg says. “It just proves that you’re doing something right. If you’re being attacked by these kinds of people that shows you’re doing something right. It just shows how desperate they are not to talk about the climate.”

During the pandemic, Thunberg has seen climate slip from front pages. But she wishes the climate could generate the same level of alarm that COVID-19 has. “It feels like we’re stuck no matter what we do,” she says. “We won’t achieve real change unless we actually start to treat the climate crisis like a crisis.”

In September, Thunberg was again outside Swedish Parliament for a socially distanced climate protest, part of thousands of school strikes held that day. But watching the U.S. presidential debates, where climate was a little-discussed issue and summarily dismissed by Trump, she says, has been eye-opening.

“It surprises me. I knew the situation in the U.S. was bad when it comes to climate, that it’s being treated as an opinion rather than actual scientific fact, but I didn’t know it was this bad,” says Thunberg. “Europe and Sweden, we are very, very far from where we need to be in the discussion. But compared to the U.S., it’s just surprising.”

Earlier this fall, Thunberg returned to school after taking a year off.

“I’ve missed it a lot. It just feels very good to be back in school and to do normal things, to have routines. I love routines — that’s probably a lot because of my autism,” she says. “And in this environment, I’m almost anonymous in a way. People know who I am, of course, but I’m not there because I’m famous. I’m there to do something else, I’m just like the rest.”

Anonymity might no longer be a long-term option for Thunberg, who will turn 18 in January. But it’s a tradeoff she will make. When she reflects on the last two years, she sounds dangerously close to being something few would label Thunberg: an optimist.

“Before I started doing this, my experience was that no one cared. Now I’ve been proven wrong. Obviously, many people, especially young people, care about the climate crisis and the future, and that’s encouraging,” says Thunberg. “Humanity has not yet failed. We are failing, but humanity has not failed.”

Jake Coyle, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Climate change

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C. is shown on Wednesday, June 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Langley to seek COVID-19 infrastructure grants

The provincially-administered funds could be used in flood prevention

Langley’s Maryalice Wood, 71, won Cranberries BC Culinary Contest in October 2020 for her cranberry walnut cheese ball recipe. (Coreen Rodger Berrisford/Special to Langley Advance Times)
Langley woman creates winning cranberry walnut cheese ball recipe

Maryalice Wood won the Cranberries BC Culinary Contest

Submit letters to the editor through our website, via email or in writing.
LETTER: Langley resident disappointed with paper’s lack of Nov. 25 coverage

Reader critical of paper for not covering International Day of Elimination of Violence Against Women

Townhouses for sale in the Willoughby neighbourhood of Langley on Dec. 2, 2020. (Matthew Claxton/Langley Advance Times)
Houses selling fast in Langley in November

Real estate markets continued to see high sales and rising prices

These three orbs in a triangular formation were spotted in the skies above Abbotsford/Aldergrove on Dec. 1. (YouTube)
VIDEO: Alleged UFO sighting in Abbotsford/Aldergrove

Footage from Dec. 1 shows three orbs in triangle formation in the skies

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s coronavirus situation at the legislature, Nov. 30, 2020. (B.C. government)
Hockey team brought COVID-19 back from Alberta, B.C. doctor says

Dr. Bonnie Henry pleads for out-of-province travel to stop

B.C. Premier John Horgan on a conference call with religious leaders from his B.C. legislature office, Nov. 18, 2020, informing them in-person church services are off until further notice. (B.C. government)
B.C. tourism relief coming soon, Premier John Horgan says

Industry leaders to report on their urgent needs next week

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

An RCMP cruiser looks on as a military search and rescue helicopter winds down near Bridesville, B.C. Tuesday, Dec. 1. Photo courtesy of RCMP Cpl. Jesse O’Donaghey
B.C. Mountie, suspect airlifted by Canadian Armed Forces from ravine after foot chase

Military aircraft were dispatched from Comox, B.C., say RCMP

Photo by Dale Klippenstein
Suspect tries to thwart police in Abbotsford with false 911 call about men with guns

Man twice sped away from officers and then tried to throw them off his trail

An 18-year old male southern resident killer whale, J34, is stranded near Sechelt in 2016. A postmortem examination suggests he died from trauma consistent with a vessel strike. (Photo supplied by Paul Cottrell, Fisheries and Oceans Canada)
“We can do better” — humans the leading cause of orca deaths: study

B.C. research reveals multitude of human and environmental threats affecting killer whales

A logo for Netflix on a remote control is seen in Portland, Ore.,Aug. 13, 2020. Experts in taxation and media say a plan announced Monday by the government will ultimately add to the cost of digital services and goods sold by foreign companies. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jenny Kane
‘Netflix tax’ for digital media likely to raise prices for consumers, experts say

The government says Canadian companies already collect those taxes when they make digital sales

Most Read