Back to back devastating hurricanes…havoc-wrecking tornados…engulfing forest fires…crippling droughts — in the past few years, the effects of climate change have been readily apparent in the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, especially in the U.S. (climate change deniers can take it up with science — not with me). These events, while scary to live through, are even scarier in terms of what it means for the youth and future generations.
This is where documentary filmmaker Christi Cooper and her new doc “YOUTH v GOV” comes in. The film is the story of America’s youth taking on the world’s most powerful government to fight for their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property — what we all want. Following the 21 diverse and courageous young people aged 11 to 20 years old. The film is a great mix of fact and anecdotal evidence and emotion — history and legal procedure — making for an interesting, thought-provoking and enlightening film. At its heart, the film makes us contemplate whether a climate that sustains life is a constitutional right and continues to prove that young people will continue to lead the fight to change the world for the better (from desegregation to women’s rights to gay rights).
I recently had the privilege to chat with director Christi Cooper to talk about her background in science and how that impacts her film work and the climate change movement today.
LV: Well, I guess we’ll go ahead and jump right in. I read that you are a scientist, as well as a filmmaker. So how did how did this film come about? And what really drew you to this story?
Christi Cooper: I was scientist doing research in Europe and I was getting more heavily involved in science communication, and decided that I wanted to kind of branch out and be able to do films around science. I came back to the U.S. to get my MFA in Science and Natural History Filmmaking. That kind of led a short doc film project that I did together with Witness that followed the stories of young people who were suing their state governments over climate change. It was a series of 10 short films, and I kind of got to travel all across the U.S. with different young people who were/are taking these these actions in the court.
I was really fascinated by it, and felt really empowered by us being able to share their story and that impact. I stayed in touch with several of the youth after that, who are now placed in this Juliana vs. The United States case, and stayed in touch with the with the legal team who was leading this case. So when they had their first one in the courts, I realized that this was kind of a longer story that I wanted to jump into. And I think, you know, the science background, for me kind of feeds in to how I approached the legal framing of the story, because it kind of feels like the same kind of storytelling. Whether it’s legal framing or science — how do you get this really complex information that maybe a lot of people are not educated about or don’t quite understand — how can you bring that across in the form of a human connection and storytelling?
So I tried to take that same approach. And for me, as a scientist, I kind of looked at the all of the legal theories like a science — how would I approach this from a science communication kind of pathway, I guess.
LV: So that’s interesting that you say that. I am an attorney as well and that approach that you took was really spot on. Yeah, that’s a great way of doing it.
Christi Cooper: That’s awesome. So did you happen to notice the three-act structure of the of the film and what it was based on?
LV: I did. Very well done. So I know that this film takes place over about four or so years, and it’s such a big story. How difficult was it to actually film all of this dealing with so many different individuals all over the place? And what was the editing process and kind of paring it all down into one cohesive kind of story like?
Christi Cooper: Yeah, so the the project was almost five years long. And, as you mentioned, there’s many characters in this film, there’s 21 places and they live all across the country — as you see in the film. So it was a lot. The first three and a half years or so I was completely on my own with this project, just trying to travel around and spend time with the plaintiffs and understand what their stories were and, to some extent, also trying to follow the climate impacts that were happening to them.
When Hurricane Matthew hit, I managed to get a ticket to North Carolina and drove down to Florida, to be with Levi (one of the younger plaintiffs) as he returned from his evacuation. It was a lot of jumping when the need arose to track the story. And the same thing with with the case, when something happened in the case, I had to be pretty nimble, you know, to be able to react to what was unfolding in the case because there was literally nothing about this story that was predictable, or something that I could put into a schedule. Also not knowing how long the case was going to take or when court decision is going to come.
I eventually had to make the decision to end the story where it is, even though the case is filled before the Ninth Circuit Court, because I felt like the time was now to get the story out there. And the editing process was a lot. Obviously, I just have a ton of material to find people and we tried to weave and pick the stories that helped us move the legal case forward in a way that they that blended the historical, the legal and the plaintiffs stories together into one story that was unfolding. It was a lot of maneuvering and trying to figure out how these individual stories fit in without feeling like you’re leaving the main story, but to move the legal story forward.
LV: You just kind of touched on my next question a little bit. I was going to ask — how did you narrow it down from the 21 plaintiffs — which stories which backstories you were going to highlight in the film?
Christi Cooper: Yeah, it was really hard — spending so much time with these young people, all of whom have really important stories to tell — it was kind of heartbreaking to have to do. They all have such different backgrounds and ethnicities and physical locations. Like they really demonstrate what our country looks like and what kind of experiences they have across the board. So some of the stories naturally rose a little bit more to the surface. As someone who kind of was also coming up from a human rights perspective, it was really hard for me to narrow down the stories, but at the end of the day, we had to choose those ones that were best helping to move the case story forward, because that was the real thread that we had to follow in order to have some kind of cohesiveness.
LV: So the film definitely has a sense of urgency. It was disheartening, yet hopeful at the same time. How were you able to effectively capture all of that? I know that throughout the film you touch on the history, the facts, the science, the the legal procedure — but you also give us a glimpse into the daily lives of the plaintiffs. For example Vic in his conversations with his father, and then Juliana’s childhood — how did you bring that all together? How did you balance the sense of urgency and scariness of the situation with the hopefulness of the plaintiff and lawyers involved in the case?
Christi Cooper: Yeah, it’s really interesting. I feel like we’re at this point in history where youth are rising up and demanding change — whether it’s gun reform, racial justice or climate justice — for this climate change is devastating. It’s really depressing seeing the news and if you’re actually really following and understanding what’s happening to people, it’s really tragic. But then I was experiencing these youth fighting for their future in our country’s highest court. They bring so much energy and passion that it’s a beautiful blend of the the urgency and the sadness. I think if we don’t feel the grief, and we don’t experience the sadness, it’s really hard for us to also experience the hope. I think those balance each other out, and I think you have to feel the grief, and you have to feel the sadness in order to start thinking about how we can change this, and what that change looks like. So I think it was important for me to have a, blend of the reality of what these plaintiffs are experiencing, but also the battle, the determination and the brilliance that they bring to the story.
LV: I did notice that there was only a quick snippet of Greta Thunberg. In recent years, she’s usually the focus of this youth movement for climate change. Was that a conscious decision on your part to make sure that these particular plaintiffs were the focus of this story? And not really bring too much of her and her journey into this?
Christi Cooper: Well, I mean, there’s several parts to that answer. This case is against the US government, and these are young Americans who brought this case before the court. They also were in this fight long before there was a youth movement on the ground back in 2015. There wasn’t a youth climate movement. We had just a year before had our first climate people Climate March. And then the year after they started as a group, the first youth-led Climate March, it slowly started to seep into this. I think after Parkland, as well, that was a moment in time where I think we realized that youth were going to come to the forefront. And they were going to be, again, a part of creating a change within our society.
The youth part of the climate movement was kind of delayed because there’s been a lot of old fogies working on this for many, many years. The focus has never been on the youth, but it’s so important to empower these 21 young people who started this precarious fight not knowing what they were getting into. But towards the end of the film, I wanted to give representation to the growing Global Youth Movement — of which Greta is a really important part. She’s inspired youth around the world to take to the streets with her Friday’s For Action school strikes. So I didn’t want to completely ignore that she is now part of this movement. But, I really wanted the focus to be on what these particular youth started, and the growing legal case. The legal actions that are being taken around the world were inspired by this case.
LV: That makes sense. What do you hope that people will take away from this film?
Christi Cooper: I really hope that people will be inspired. I try hard to make non-partisan films to help people understand — this is what our government’s responsibility, they’ve had a hand in creating this problem. And spotlight the power of the youth voice in creating the solution — even if they can’t vote. Even if some of these young people are not old enough to vote, their voice still matters and they still have an important role to play. And yes, it matters — they have something to bring to the table. But it’s really about the journey of these young people — they’re taking ownership over their constitutional rights and they’re holding their government accountable. That’s really empowering.
LV: Definitely. So one last question — what’s next for you? And what’s next for this film in particular?
Christi Cooper: Well, my future work right now is going to be around the impact campaign — we have an impact campaign that’s going to accompany film and it’s designed to activate and empower audiences to take action surrounding these issues and themes that were presented in the film — specifically around government accountability. So for the time being, while some festivals are virtual, we will be focusing on that and really look forward to launching that impact campaign once our our film goes public.
LV: That’s great. It’s a great film. Great job on on getting this out there and getting the story out there. And I wish you luck with everything with this one going forward. And hopefully, we can make some change.
Christi Cooper: Thank you so much. I really appreciate your time and watching it and asking the questions.
I would like to thank filmmaker Christi Cooper for taking the time out to chat with me about her work and YOUTH v GOV. For more information about the film and ways to get involved, head to http://www.youthvgov.org.