In his non-fiction book How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Andreas Malm writes “Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices. […] Let the capitalists investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed.” Director Daniel Goldhaber draws on this same righteous fury in his narrativised adaptation of Malm’s polemical work, reinforcing the message that it’s way beyond too late for half-measures in climate activism. The result is a tense heist thriller about ecoterrorism that doesn’t hold back from clear and explicit recommendations about what property we need to trash to lessen planetary catastrophe.
HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE follows a group of young people preparing to sabotage an oil pipeline in Texas. They use YouTube instructions to prepare improvised explosive devices, carefully plan how to minimise ecosystem contamination from oil spillage, and plot alibis for each other. Parallel with the heist planning, the film flashes back to what brought each character to this point and how they came to accept that direct action is the only way to effect real political change.
Each flashback makes it clearer and clearer that these millennials and Gen Z-ers live in a hellworld: unchecked carbon emissions are driving catastrophic climate disaster; huge oil refineries pollute the atmosphere and cause leukaemia for those living in their shadow; billions of lives are at risk because of the actions of the wealthy and the powerful. It’s a dystopian vision made all the more powerful for the realisation that it’s our world.
“Heist tropes like getting a crew together, planning the heist, executing the heist, and dealing with unexpected issues that arise along the way come successfully together to depict what the book discusses using a narrative approach. “
The original book argues for the ethics of sabotage and violence against property as a legitimate and necessary tactic at this stage of the climate crisis. It’s fair to say that the film is a loose adaptation, narrativising the book’s themes in a fiction film closer to OCEAN’S ELEVEN than AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH. Heist tropes like getting a crew together, planning the heist, executing the heist, and dealing with unexpected issues that arise along the way come successfully together to depict what the book discusses using a narrative approach.
Goldhaber and cinematographer Tehillah De Castro shoot the film simply, with a straightforward style that lends itself to the direct message. Almost every shot in the flashbacks quietly includes hulking oil refineries churning out pollutants in the background or CO2-emitting vehicles constantly passing by. A lot of the film’s dynamism comes from Daniel Garber’s editing, which produces incredible tension in the scenes where the characters craft and deploy their homemade bombs. The explosives are positioned as volatile and sensitive bringing to mind the tension around transporting sweating nitroglycerin in William Friedkin’s SORCERER.
“It feels significant that young people [Glasgow Film Festival 2023’s Young Selectors] would recognise the importance of this film and the righteous anger that drives it.”
The film explores the blurred line between what those in power designate as ‘activism’ or ‘terrorism’. Xochitl (Ariela Barer) and Shawn (Marcus Scribner) are experienced climate activists jaded by their group’s focus on fossil fuel divestment and other half-measures that seek to dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools. They see that blowing up a section of pipeline to disrupt the cost of fossil fuels or sabotaging a few dozen private jets would be more effective than another seminar on gradual free market sanctions against CO2 emissions. There’s probably more of a sense of conflict in the film to an audience who isn’t immediately on the side of these ‘eco-terrorists’.
HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE is one of the films curated by Glasgow Film Festival 2023’s Young Selectors, a group of young curators who have specially selected films for this year’s festival. It feels significant that young people would recognise the importance of this film and the righteous anger that drives it. We need those who will most pay the price for our climate mistakes to reckon with what needs to be done to prevent total disaster.