The efficiently titled How to Blow Up a Pipeline weaves a fictional story of eco-sabotage out of Marxist academic Andreas Malm’s book on climate activism. It’s also self-critical when it comes to cinema’s role within the movement.
One of the film’s central activists, Dwayne (Jake Weary), a Texan farmer whose land has been forcibly seized by the government for the construction of a pipeline, is interviewed on camera by a crew of documentarians. They’re keen to “put a human face on this crisis” in order to “raise awareness”. But all they’re really doing is demanding that Dwayne recount his pain for their own purposes. Will they contribute to his legal expenses? Will they stick around to fight his cause once the cameras have stopped rolling? We all know that they won’t. Filmmaker Daniel Goldhaber, who applied a similar sense of moral clarity to his debut, the sex work horror Cam, has here crafted a film that feels radical almost purely through its lack of self-satisfaction.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline borrows the tone and structure of a classic Hollywood thriller, as it diligently tracks the group’s plans to detonate two bombs in the remote Texan desert and temporarily disrupt the country’s oil industry. It’s not a manifesto, really, but a matter-of-fact portrayal of the palpable anger emanating from a betrayed generation. “This was an act of self-defence,” declares Xochitl (Ariela Barer), a college student whose mother died in a “freak heatwave”. Her grief has made it unpalatable to merely sit in on activist meetings – for campaigns calling for corporations and organisations to divest from fossil fuels – and, like Malm, she’s come to see “strategic nonviolence” as ineffectual. It’s a desperate case of too little, too late.
It may seem a little narratively convenient that personal loss compels almost all of the film’s characters – in a script written by Goldhaber, Barer and Jordan Sjol – but it’s hardly implausible. Sooner, rather than later, it’ll become impossible to find individuals whose lives haven’t been touched by the climate crisis. The film’s action is segmented by flashbacks. Theo (Sasha Lane) has developed a rare form of cancer, caused by a childhood spent near Long Beach’s oil refineries. Her girlfriend, Alisha (Jayme Lawson), has to watch her wither away. Michael (Forrest Goodluck) is Indigenous, his community’s land stolen right from under his feet. He’s frustrated by his mother’s commitment to a local conservancy – a futile effort, in his eyes, which “only makes white people feel better”.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline allows these people to speak and act in ways that betray their uncertainty. They’re not quite fully formed as individuals, still clawing at the air to find some sense of conviction. We’re allowed to grasp their ordinariness without the film delegitimising their actions. Shawn (Marcus Scribner), Xochitl’s college friend, doomscrolls on Twitter. Portland crust punks Logan and Rowan (Lukas Gage and Kristine Froseth) are distracted by their own horniness. The group stumble through the well-trodden argument that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.
The humanity at the centre of How to Blow Up a Pipeline better serves its tension, too – racketed up by the cinematographer Tehillah De Castro’s use of grainy 16mm, sharp editing by Daniel Garber, and a restless electronic score by Gavin Brivik. All these elements work in unison to bring into fierce reality a motto favoured by the film’s activists: “If the law will not punish you, we will”.
Dir: Daniel Goldhaber. Starring: Ariela Barer, Kristine Froseth, Lukas Gage, Forrest Goodluck, Sasha Lane, Jayme Lawson, Marcus Scribner, Jake Weary, Irene Bedard. 15, 104 minutes.
‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’ is in cinemas from 21 April
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