Life & Culture

How British film director Josh Appignanesi overcame anxiety to change the world

Appignanesi discusses his climate change work


W hat does change look like? Social, political, human, spiritual? I’m thinking particularly of climate change, the biggest change we’re currently making and facing, and how we might change that. How might we change our climate in order to change the literal climate?

I had no idea, so I made a film, My Extinction, to figure it out in my own microanalytical, personal, hapless way.

Picture a guilty but very self-absorbed dad with two young kids in 2019, where for a minute, at least, it seemed like a time of “ecopiphanies”: Extinction Rebellion (XR), Greta, climate emergencies declared by governments, Sir David Attenborough…

Picture us, my wife and I, engaged in those behind-the-scenes, never-really-heard conversations so many of us are having at home about the climate disaster, about the rise of fascism (they most definitely go together), about the future of our kids.

Maybe conversations is too grand a word — brief mentions, rather, in a register of general despair, followed by a blackly humorous comment and general shrug: what can one really do about it, anyway?

So I started filming that, shrugs and all. And I started talking to friends who knew more about it than me, and filmed that too.

And we ended up doing some protests and campaigns. And that became the movie. Maybe it’ll even be useful. Please come judge for yourself.

These were talks with a Jewish lilt. Because change is something Jews got good at: adaptation, assimilation, survival. And because, let’s be honest, Jews are already well acquainted with extinction-level events.

We might then go on to think of tikkun olam, the duty to heal a broken world — and I’d be able to claim that was the key motivator for me, if I was a better, more altruistic person. But I’m not that person.

Instead, let me draw attention to a favourite line in the film. It’s a walk and talk with the comedian David Schneider at a street protest.

I say: “This is all great but to me it feels tragic because nothing these nice people do will work… I despair, I’m a pessimist.” And he says (or shrugs), “Course. You’re Jewish.”

Cut to me in an abstract, barren stormscape looking pensively into the middle-distance.

I left that line in because I wanted to explicitly out myself as belonging to a history, including things in my own family, that track cleanly to the climate crisis: mass death, forced migration, embattled political structures expressing themselves through populist strongman authoritarianism, racist blame and anti-immigration, a sense of unhomedness.

Resistance, failure of resistance, failure in general.

“Failure in general” doesn’t sound like the obvious slogan for committed climate action. Go, Team Failure!

"But the Jewish familiarity with and openness to what we might call negative states or unpleasant feelings — feelings such as despair, anxiety, guilt — are pretty important to admit if we’re to deal with our reality rather than using all our energy denying it.

"And that certainly includes climate denial, even the soft version of “well, what can I really do anyway, oh dear, better pick up the kids in the comfort and security of my enormous SUV”.

Do I really believe Jewishness can function as some sort of antidote to this half-willed blindness? Or to the creeping fascist tendency in our midst?

That’s my hope, I guess. The hope that Jewish history has laid down the kind of sensibility that can open a door, at least.

Open us up to an admission of failure, as in, our political and economic systems — systems that consistently make many of us feel like failures on a personal level — are also demonstrably failing at the global level of environmental devastation and mass inequality.

The two go together: we’re killing ourselves. The kids know it, so it might be good if we could admit it too.

Of course, that will require us to experience the unbearable feelings such admissions arouse. We may need some black jokes to mitigate them (things Jews are good at).

So yes, the film is funny. Defensively so at first, because I was defensive, and then hopefully with an irony that lets in some sincerity— that being my own trajectory, basically.

It also needed to be funny because climate films are seldom funny, and doom and guilt are a bit of a turn-off on a rare night out at the movies.

Humour lets us see our own hypocrisy in a non-rebarbative way, lets us relate a bit. Or to put it another way: if this shmuck can get climate active, hey, maybe I can too.

The films ends with a call to action: join a local group. That’s what I’d like you to do. Give up one evening a week to hang out with others who share your concerns.

If XR isn’t your speed, there’s the RSPB, or Friends of the Earth, or just get your shul or your workplace to get together. Because you can. Because it really matters, and you’ll feel less of a failure to boot. I’ll come with you if it helps.

The real call to action, though, is buried earlier in the film. “It all seems impossible. But then I thought: if not me, who? If not now, when?”

‘My Extinction’ is showing in cinemas nationwide, including at JW3 on Sunday (July 2).

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