The Road to Environmental Justice: An Interview with Christi Cooper and Olivia Ahenmann

Interview by Mehra Marzbani
Copyedited and Posted
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Youth activism in YOUTH v GOV (photo by Robin Loznak).

Christi Cooper and Olivia Ahenmann’s 2020 documentary Youth v Gov uses a robust medley of verité and structured film forms to chart the case of young plaintiffs as they sue the United States federal government for failing to address the climate crisis. Intelligently weaving together candid plaintiff stories and informative archival footage, Cooper and Ahenmann deliver a particularly effective call to action for the audience—and the government—to protect the planet now and forever. 

The documentary chronicles the journey of 21 plaintiffs ages 8 to 19 in their lawsuit Juliana v. United States, which spanned from 2015 to 2020. Aided by the legal non-profit Our Children’s Trust, the youth make the case that climate change is real and urgent, delivering authentic personal statements in trial and tangible scientific evidence on global climate change and ocean acidification. Complemented by historical segments showing how the federal government has known of the dangers of burning fossil fuels yet continues to do so, the plaintiffs insist that the government is encroaching on their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. 

It is the plaintiffs’ anecdotes that bring the gravity of the climate crisis into perspective: deadly wildfires and carbon dioxide emissions pollute the air and exacerbate health issues, flooding demolishes neighborhoods, and droughts pose a threat to land sacred to indigenous tribes. Some are scarred by the experience of evacuating their homes, others are forced to grow up fast when trees that were once their playground apparatus are destroyed by hurricanes. Through a successful pathos appeal, Cooper and Ahenmann expose these stakes in the film to indicate that climate change poses a serious risk to the welfare of children and young people. 

Individually, Cooper and Ahenmann have already addressed complex environmental issues like climate change in previous documentaries, as they discuss in this interview.  Cooper, an Emmy-award-winning cinematographer with a Ph.D. in Neuroscience and an MS in Microbiology, often integrates her science background into her filmmaking. Ahenmann won an Academy Award for chasing dolphin hunters in Japan in The Cove (2009) and received Emmy and Oscar nods for exposing global wildlife crimes in Racing Extinction (2015). What makes their approach to Youth v Gov so radically different is that the focus of the documentary is entirely on young people, as the title suggests. Throughout the documentary, Cooper’s camera captures youth being youth as they cry, laugh, play, and sing. Despite their diverse backgrounds and varying ages, the plaintiffs share a passion and dedication to combating climate change, something the filmmakers establish within the first few minutes of the documentary. Cooper and Ahenmann’s dedication to youth is reflected in their win at the 24th United Nations Association Film Festival, where they were awarded the UNAFF Youth Vision Award. It is refreshing to see an issue as controversial as climate change through the eyes of youth, and the documentary’s raw, observational moments execute the young people’s perspective beautifully. As a teenager myself, it is astonishing to see people my age with the audacity to face the government and the altruism to protect the environment for future generations. I applaud the vulnerability of the youth in the documentary and am deeply inspired by their efforts. 

Youth v Gov supplies a timely burst of motivation in the long battle for environmental justice and a climate system capable of sustaining life. It is the result of a passion for human stories intertwined with an affinity for environmentalism that Cooper and Ahenmann were able to create such a compelling piece of activist cinema that reinforces the fact that we only have one planet… so why not protect it? 

Youth protesting in favor of a national climate recovery plan (photo by Robin Loznak).

Christi, I want to begin by asking you about your passion and connection to this project. I’ve read that you focus your storytelling on issues of justice and the power of human connections. Did you have a prior interest in climate change, or was it the opportunity to highlight youth’s voices that was most compelling? Or perhaps a bit of both?

Christi Cooper: I came into filmmaking from the lens of a scientist engaged in pre-clinical research, and even though my research was focused on humans, I always felt rather disconnected from making a difference in real lives. When I entered the world of filmmaking, I was immediately drawn to the human stories and our connection to our natural environment (or disconnection). My passion for climate change issues began in 2010 when I went to Louisiana following the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and was helping scientists with some of their media.

Christi Cooper

This experience led to meeting the captains of our boats, who were out-of-work shrimpers (due to the oil spill) but happened to be from an indigenous tribe outside the levy system in SW Louisiana. They graciously and generously invited my colleague and me to stay with them as they told us their story of loss and marginalization. I saw first-hand how the fossil fuel industry had destroyed the marshlands, which used to protect them from hurricanes and storm surges, allowing them to grow their own food on the banks. 

This experience was pivotal for me and created a deep desire to focus on stories of justice and to help elevate the voice of those who are often on the frontlines of destruction yet have the fewest resources to have their voices heard. Shortly thereafter (in 2011) I was invited to help create a series of short films (Stories of TRUST: Calling for Climate Recovery) focused on young people suing their state governments, and this was my introduction to working with young people and climate litigation. Youth v Gov grew out of that work and my relationship with these youth people and their legal team. 

Olivia, you’ve been directing and producing documentary films for over 20 years, notably films related to climate change. I’m thinking 2015’s Racing Extinction and 2018’s The Human Element among others. What made you want to pursue another film surrounding this topic? 

Olivia Ahenmann: I loved the story of the Juliana vs. United States plaintiffs. The young people we profile in the film are inspiring and the case is about a solution to the climate crisis. I felt like the story Christi Cooper wanted to tell was very different from other films about climate change. 

Olivia Ahenmann

 Production spanned nearly half a decade. With the pandemic and legal obstacles impeding the filmmaking process, how did your sense of what you were doing change? 

Olivia: Luckily we had 95% of the film shot and we were already six months into the edit with our team working remotely before the pandemic hit. Our challenge was determining when we had an ending to our story with the legal case still making its way through the courts. We always had hoped that the case would go to trial while we were in production and we’d be able to follow the trial but it didn’t pan out that way. The plaintiffs are still waiting for their day in court. 

 Narratives tend to take on the three-act structure: Setup, Confrontation, and Resolution. It appears to me that Youth v Gov fits this structure—but with its own twist. Was this intentional? And would you mind elaborating on how you interpreted the three-act structure and molded it to fit the purposes of your documentary? 

Christi: As I was developing this story and early in production, I knew that there were certain elements of this story that I was not willing to compromise on—the plaintiff stories being the heart, but also the very important historical and archival elements, which support the plaintiffs’ claim that the government has known for decades about the dangers of greenhouse gasses and nevertheless supported the development, production, and consumption of fossil fuels. Obviously, the Juliana case itself was also a very important piece of the story, because, without a good understanding of the tenets of the case, it’s very difficult to even understand why all of this is even important. So, this led to an abundance of footage and story materials, all of which I knew would be impossible to include.

When my post-production team and I sat down to work through the storyline, it quickly became apparent to us that we could use the three elements of standing in a lawsuit as the basis for the three-act structure of the story. This also allowed me to tell the story of the case in a chronological manner, as well as share what I felt were very important educational aspects of the film—the elements of a lawsuit, the role our courts can play in climate justice, how our courts are a very essential and independent (or should be) body of our government, etc. 

Olivia Ahnemann and Christi Cooper.

So, we set about to break the story into those acts—1) show the plaintiffs’ harms, 2) show how the defendant caused those harms, and 3) show how the courts can provide redress or a remedy to those plaintiffs. Once we figured this out, it was much easier to choose which elements of the plaintiffs’ stories fit where and how we would go about weaving in the educational bits, the archival sections, etc. This was truly a collaborative process between me and my two brilliant editors, Lyman Smith and Tony Hale, as we worked over the next 12 months on solidifying the storyline. 

One of the things that really stood out to me was that there was a genuine camaraderie among all of the young plaintiffs, and their shared passion for one thing I think is what ultimately tugged on my heartstrings. However, I know there are far more than 21 individuals who are passionate about the climate change movement. On what criteria, if any, did you base your selection of what youth would be shown on screen? Did you have any personal connections to the plaintiffs beforehand? 

Christi: This was the hardest part of putting the story together for me. It was where my heart broke into a million pieces, knowing that I could not possibly do all of these young people justice in telling their stories. Yes, there are more than 21 individuals who are passionate about climate change, but these are the only 21 individuals who are suing the United States government to protect their constitutional rights to a safe and stable climate system, and they collectively became a character in my story. My hope was for this family group to serve the purpose of representing young people everywhere who are fearful of their future and the certain climate catastrophes that will come. Nevertheless, some of the characters’ stories did rise to the surface and played an important role in helping to move the story forward, in particular how we chose to weave them into the case story and the chronology of what was happening. The hard part was that they all have stories, they all are experiencing harm, and I wanted to highlight all of them. But reason kicked in and we knew we would have to be selective. During production, I tried to follow as many stories as I could. Certain climate impacts happened during the course of production that naturally led to some of those stories receiving more coverage. But it was my goal to at least have all of them on screen or in a scene if possible. 

In answer to your question about prior personal connections – yes, I had known Xiuhtezcatl, Kelsey, Jaime, and several of the Eugene plaintiffs for several years because of the short films I had been involved in creating about their state cases filed in 2011. I had grown very close to Kelsey and Xiuhtezcatl during those prior years, as well as with their families, so it made it much easier to step into this space with 21 young people and their families at the onset of production. 

Lead plaintiff Kelsey Juliana speaks in front of SCOTUS (photo by Robin Loznak).

Trust had already been established with some of them, which led to a much more natural and comfortable space to be in while filming with my crew. 

Human rights films are generally disheartening, as they cover difficult topics and end on a rather depressing note; I generally finish documentaries all misty-eyed and sad. Yet, after Youth v Gov, I remained hopeful, knowing that the plaintiffs still had a judge on their side and that they would continue fighting for what is important to them. Were you always set on establishing this kind of tone as you wrote the film? 

Christi: I always knew that I wanted this story to end on a hopeful note. I mean, we all need that hope right now, right? Yes, the realities of climate change and the erosion of our constitutional rights are dire and depressing, and we need to tell those stories. I knew that there would be pieces of Youth v Gov that are hard to watch—the climate devastations, the setbacks in the case, and the real losses that the plaintiffs were experiencing. We need those moments to make the emotional connection to the characters and those are real moments that the heart of the case is based on. Nevertheless, we need hope in this world more than anything right now. I decided to end production and put this story together before this case had its natural conclusion—in fact, the case is still very much alive and in the courts—because I wanted the audience to get involved, follow this case, and understand what is at stake. The hope at the end of the film is that this is all of our story, and youth around the world are taking similar action. We can all be a part of this change and the solutions that are needed.

Youth v Gov was awarded various awards, including the UNAFF Youth Vision Award and the American Conservation Film Festival Green Spark Award. Since its Netflix premiere this past April, the documentary has received plenty of noise from the public: Glenn Close found the film “humbling, educational and deeply inspiring,” and Francis Ford Coppola praised the documentary’s premise of “youth having a say in decisions affecting their future.” How do you feel knowing that such big names and film festivals are giving kudos to your film? Is this the kind of response you were anticipating? 

Olivia: As a filmmaker, it is a wonderful feeling knowing your film is being seen by people and that it has an impact on them. We are humbled that both famous people and everyday audiences are connecting with this story. 

Christi: It is incredibly humbling to have created a film that even one person will sit down and watch, let alone experience the festival and distribution successes that we’ve had. It’s been an incredible journey to see this dream I had six years ago come to fruition and for people of influence to use their voices and their platforms to help get it out into the world. We are very grateful that Youth v Gov is now available worldwide in over 30 languages on Netflix, and we are thrilled that we continue to receive invitations to be a part of film festivals and screening events around the world. These opportunities have helped to create buzz around the film and provided venues for young people (and older people too!) around the world to engage in this issue and to feel that they can also be part of the solution. 

There has been a great deal of reluctance about depicting controversial topics like climate change in film. Richard Lawson,  Vanity Fair’s chief critic, once wrote that climate change is a “tricky topic,” because its “vastness almost doesn’t agree with its reality.” I worry that people turn to fictional narratives in movies that scarcely touch on the topic of an environmental catastrophe as a means to educate themselves or feel like they are part of the movement. Has this ever crossed your mind as a potential area of concern? Why should youth take the time to watch documentaries in their entirety? 

Olivia: I’d love everyone to watch documentaries in their entirety because there is so much rich storytelling out there in this format. However, I don’t think it matters where and how people, young or older, get exposed to important issues like the climate crisis. If someone connects with the urgency of the issue by watching a narrative film, tv show, or reading a book or article, I think that’s great. 

Christi Filming Levi Post-Storm (photo by Lynne Reid).

What do you think the success of your film, in addition to the rise in popularity of similar human rights documentaries, like 13th and  On Her Shoulders, say about the future of documentaries as an educational tool to bring awareness to important issues like climate change? Is there a certain audience that you think would learn the most from viewing documentaries? 

Christi: I absolutely believe in the power of storytelling to drive real social change. They are tools for movements to use and they speak to the power of human connection and the inherent empathy of most human beings. I wouldn’t be in this profession if I didn’t believe that documentaries not only have the power to change people’s minds but also to educate them and provide a pathway for understanding and an introduction to topics that they are perhaps not very familiar with. I think all of us can learn from documentaries and I don’t think there’s one particular audience that benefits more than the other. I think if we open our hearts and minds to the experiences of others who share this delicate planet with us, we can all benefit and learn from each other. I hope that the success of many documentaries will help audiences to realize that there are really great stories out there and documentaries are worthy of their time and attention. 

In addition to climate change movements, youth have recently taken the initiative to lead Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian American Pacific Islander movements and have found great success. Why do you think youth activism is oftentimes more effective than adult activism? What sets youth apart from the rest of the crowd? 

Olivia: That’s a great question and I’m not sure I know the answer to it. Perhaps it’s that when we encounter or join youth activists we adults are faced with the consequences of our actions on a younger generation. 

Christi: I think historically young people have been underrepresented and marginalized within our society. They are often dismissed because older adults think they haven’t experienced enough yet or don’t know enough. However, I think that has slowly been shifting over the past decade. I have personally witnessed senators and representatives stop and listen to what these young people have to say. I’ve seen them testify in city council meetings and bring those council members to tears. I’ve seen them testify before Congress and receive the respect and attention 

they deserve. I believe this is because they truly have the moral authority in these situations. They often are not old enough to vote and therefore often don’t have a voice in our political system. However, they are the generation with the most to lose when it comes to climate change, and I think they are incredibly effective at getting that message across. The youth I have gotten to know in this movement are also incredibly inclusive and compassionate, which I believe has led to the intersectionality of the climate movement. They understand that it’s about much more than the science of climate change—it’s about the injustices at the heart of our society. 

The young people’s fight for a habitable planet is nowhere close to being over. Cooper and Ahnemann encourage the public to continue supporting the plaintiffs through Our Children’s Trust

Learn more about the documentary here. You can watch the documentary and follow its official Instagram page. To connect with Christi, check out her Instagram and LinkedIn pages. You can also connect with Oliva on her LinkedIn. Connect with the interviewer, Mehra, by visiting her profile.