How To Blow Up A Pipeline thrillingly amplifies young voices in the climate crisis
Ariela Barer and her housemates just made the climate crisis's most fascinating film yet.
words Zoe Whitfield
“My mom always tells this story, of when someone was talking about Jim Carrey and I got all excited because I thought they were talking about [then Democratic presidential candidate] John Kerry,” says Jewish-Mexican actor Ariela Barer, who you’ll recognise from performances in Hulu series Runaways and the Saved By The Bell reboot (there was also a stint as young Cece in New Girl). She’s revisiting one of her earliest political anecdotes with a smile. “I was seven – a loser kid, in hindsight – but that was very much who I was, and this movie is kind of the natural progression of that.”
Now 24 and well versed in the distinction between the comic actor and current US climate envoy, Barer helms the climate justice heist film How to Blow Up a Pipeline, where she’s taken on duties as a writer and producer and stars alongside American Honey’s Sasha Lane and Euphoria and You’s Lukas Gage. Setting out to make the issues around organising and activism in the climate justice space that much more accessible to a large audience perhaps not familiar in the academia of it all, expect big bangs, hard truths and a new point of view from what is sure to be one of the films of the year.
Climate activism has long been part of Barer’s world - she’s attended Divest LA meetings and protests against the North Dakota Pipeline - parallel to her acting. How to Blow Up a Pipeline is perhaps her most impressive credit yet: the genesis and lead inspiration for which comes from Swedish academic Andreas Malm’s 2021 manifesto on property destruction as a tool for protest, from which Barer and her co-writers, Jordan Sjol and Daniel Goldhaber, also lifted the name.
“Around nine, my dad and sister explained global warming to me,” the actor explains of her introduction to the climate crisis. “I remember I was in line for a rollercoaster and was just like, ‘This is terrible, I can't enjoy this rollercoaster now’. Then I became obsessed with it.” The film, which Goldhaber directs, is an amalgamation of her fixation on helping the planet and a childhood invested in recycling with her career on screen. “A big question I've always asked myself as an artist is why do I do this? What's the point? And one of the things that has always made me feel the most fuelled and excited about art is politics,” she notes.
An eco-thriller which nods to classic heist films like Ocean’s 11 and Reservoir Dogs, How to Blow Up a Pipeline centres on eight young people with varying but equally desperate relationships with the climate crisis unfolding around them, and imagines what would happen if they joined forces to take action in West Texas (by contrast, Malm’s book, as one character informs another in one of the film’s lighter scenes, doesn’t actually follow through on the ‘how to’ premise). “Property destruction had already been part of activist conversations, but it wasn't really mainstream,” explains Barer, who read the book after her housemates-cum-co-writers pitched it as a potential project. “Part of me was like, ‘I would love to put this discussion onto a big scale’ – property destruction as a form of protest is legitimate and effective in all historical movements – but also this specific act would have immediate consequences in the real world. So it was, ‘this act is thorny, how do we explore that?’. By making the best, most interesting movie, rather than an overly didactic piece of propaganda that could be alienating or just boring.”
Barer, Sjol and Goldhaber began by seeking Malm’s counsel, the actor tells woo. “He was just like ‘sure, if you can, go for it’,” she recalls, still quietly surprised at the exchange. “We talked about our hesitations and he was like, ‘here’s all the criticisms of my book that I think are great’, sending us the dissenting opinions and putting us in contact with activists who agreed and disagreed with him.” The final story was shaped by the conversations that followed, while the filmmakers’ commitment to truth telling and sharing what they learned, ultimately became the picture’s guiding principles.
Barer appears on screen as Xochitl, the group’s de facto leader, but the film is very much an ensemble piece, and her accomplices include Gage and Lane as well as Marcus Scribner from Black-ish as well as Forrest Goodluck, Jayme Lawson, Jake Weary and Kristine Froseth. “The casting process was probably one of my favourite parts of the movie,” says Barer, observing how it gave her the opportunity to work with performers she’d long appreciated from afar. “Most of these actors are people that I already had been thinking about in big ways and wanting to work with. So once it came time to casting, I had lists.”
The collective nature of the movie runs through each component of the filmmaking, and the cast were encouraged to bring their own questions, ambitions and frustrations to the characters, Barer says. “One of my biggest takeaways from this project was how collaborative filmmaking as a medium is,” she notes. “I kind of love that there has to be a sense of community for it to work. And I think that's part of how we got away with writing the script so quickly, because the actors gave so much that it all got to feel lived in in such a short amount of time. There was so much passion and fire behind the arguments – like wanting to engage with the idea while also being afraid of making propaganda – these characters felt like capturing lightning in a bottle.”
Two characters in particular do some of the filmmakers’ personal heavy lifting: Lawson’s Alisha, whose relationship with the group is informed by her girlfriend’s ill health from growing up around oil refineries, is a sort of stand-in for Barer’s concerns regarding the immediate consequences of the climate crisis on everyday people. Dwayne (Weary) meanwhile, whose home has been seized on account of a legal loophole, was informed by Sjol’s upbringing. “Jordan comes from rural Wyoming and knows a lot of Dwaynes, so he was passionate about including people that on first glance you might think are your enemy, but getting past – not identity politics, but the way we wear politics as identity – and understanding that people all over the country are oppressed and upset for different reasons [was important],” shares Barer. “Dwayne felt like the perfect way to unpack that.”
While the film’s ideas were established territory for the actor, one hangover from the shoot she hadn’t considered was the sudden, heightened awareness of pipelines in her real life. “Once you realise how everywhere they are, you can't un-see it,” she says. “Anytime I'm driving now, I see all the pipelines, the refineries, the infrastructure – you just realise how oppressive it is.” Similarly, aware of the potential for criticism a project of this kind might encounter, Barer has become more privy to the perceived limitations of the big screen. “Making a movie is not activism, quite simply, it's not a radical act. It's filmmaking, it's a system, but it still holds a very valuable place within a movement,” she says, steadfast in the belief this work is to stir up empathy and highlight common ground. “Cultural production is still a necessary thing for a movement to move forward. We’ve experienced this.”
How To Blow Up A Pipeline is on general release in cinemas now
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