Movie shows new sides of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg

A fly-on-the-wall documentary about Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg's rise to global climate leader was premiered at the Venice film festival.

Movie shows new sides of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg back outside the Swedish parliament, where her protest started two years ago. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

The Swedish teenager allowed film-maker Nathan Grossman to follow her for a year after he met her in 2018 on the very first day of her schools' strike, sitting alone outside parliament in Stockholm with her homemade placard.

In that time she went from being a self-confessed “shy nerdy person” to global icon.

The resulting film, “Greta”, reveals not only the inside story of the pain and risk Thunberg has put herself through for the climate cause – braving death threats and a hair-raising North Atlantic crossing in a racing yacht – but her love of breaking into dance and her gift for comedy.

Thunberg told AFP that she hoped the intimate, often touching portrait that tracks her extraordinary rise would put an end to the “conspiracy theories that I don't think for myself and someone else writes my speeches.

“In the movie you can see that is not actually true, that I do decide for myself,” said the activist, who has been dismissed as a “brat” by Brazil's far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who claimed she was being manipulated.

This video shows when The Local met Greta Thunberg two years ago:

Several scenes show in the documentary her clashing with her actor father, Svante – who she convinced to become a vegan – often over her perfectionism as she writes and rewrites her speeches.

Speaking via Zoom during a break in classes at her secondary school in Stockholm, Thunberg said the film was true to the real her, someone who “loves her dogs and routines” but whose life has been turned upside down by the climate cause.

The film shows how she dances in her pyjamas to relieve stress as she criss-crosses Europe on trains and in her father's electric car, living off baked beans and pasta as she urges leaders to act to save the planet.

At another point she despairs that the responsibility of her role to remind the world of the existential crisis it faces is “too much”, a fear she repeated Friday during her virtual press conference at Venice.

“It is such a responsibility. I don't want to have to do all this,” she said.

Yet when far-right critics vilified her as “mentally ill” in the film, Thunberg, who has Asperger syndrome, laughed it off saying, “Sometimes I think it might be good if everyone had a bit of Asberger's.

“I don't see the world in black and white, just the climate crisis.”

'Kids were mean to me'

Despite the adoration Thunberg now receives at demonstrations and on social media, in the film she admits that “kids were mean to me” when I was younger. “I was never invited to parties and was left out.”

The activist, now 17, said she was relieved the documentary does away with the idea that she is an “angry naive child who sits in the United Nation General Assembly screaming at world leaders, because that is not the person I am.”

Indeed, she drew a laugh from reporters and Grossman by admitting that at one stage she “doubted his seriousness” as a film-maker because he worked on his own.

“Why don't they send a sound guy? Why aren't they more professional?” she wondered.

The film shows how the straight-talking schoolgirl went from being a quiet introvert to a global celebrity in a few months in 2018, and her frustration at the gulf between politicians' promises and their actions.

“I think the most surprising thing about Greta is that she is very, very funny,” Grossman told reporters.

“Sometimes I joke that she could have been a comedian. She is very charming and funny as you have seen in this press conference.”

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OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

The campaign so far suggests that Sweden's image as a paragon of virtue on the environment might be at risk, says David Crouch

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

Four years ago next month, a 15-year-old girl sat down on the cobblestones outside parliament in central Stockholm. She refused to go to school until Sweden’s general election that September, to draw attention to the climate crisis.

July 2018 had been the hottest in Sweden since records began 262 years ago, and forest fires had ravaged large parts of the countryside. Greta Thunberg’s school strike gave voice to a pent-up feeling that something must be done to curb global warming.

Within months, she had become one of the world’s best-known figures in the climate debate, leading mass protests for immediate and radical action. 

But this Friday, July 1, Thunberg was back on the cobbles outside parliament with just four supporters, repeating her message of 2018. She might be tempted to ask, after all her campaigning: why doesn’t the climate have a higher profile in this year’s Swedish elections? 

There is every reason for it to do so. According to the latest report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, the world has “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future”. Some damage was already irreversible and ecosystems were reaching the limits of their ability to cope. Their findings were an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres. 

Sweden’s self-image as a leader on green issues is undermined by recent slippage, delay and prevarication. In 2017, left and right came together to agree that the country should become “the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”, with zero carbon emissions by 2045 and negative ones thereafter. Sweden became the first nation to enshrine this target in law. However, the country is not on target to achieve this goal. In its latest assessment, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency said more measures would be necessary to prevent progress from slipping further behind on its climate transformation. 

As for other environmental targets that the country committed to achieve by 2020, 15 out of the 16 goals have not been reached. Growth, prosperity and consumption are taking precedence over the environment, researcher Katarina Eckerberg told Dagens Nyheter: “It’s the elephant in the room. No one dares to tell the truth, we are [just] trying to polish the surface a bit.” 

At the party-political level, climate policy seems to have stalled. Since Magdalena Andersson took office in the autumn, the “climate collegium” (klimatkollegium), set up in 2020 as a place for ministers to discuss essential climate initiatives, has not met. Party leaders debated energy and climate in public in early May, but the focus was on the hit to citizens’ pockets caused by rising fuel prices, with left and right united on lowering taxes. What we do for the climate in Sweden won’t bring down the temperature in India, said Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson, whose party rejects the 2045 zero-carbon target. The Green Party, who left the government in November, has seen its ratings sink steadily lower in the polls. 

Sweden’s greenhouse gas emissions actually increased by 4% in 2021 – partly because the economy bounced back after Covid, but still a worrying trend. Almost 80% of wind power projects in the country were vetoed by local municipalities, as the kommuner increasingly say no to wind power, putting a spoke in the wheels of Sweden’s green transformation.

This all adds up to climate taking a back seat so far in this year’s general election campaign. This is in sharp contrast to Norway’s “climate election” last autumn, which saw the country’s reliance on oil come in for sharp criticism and success for parties campaigning on green issues. The climate dominated the campaigning in Norway after the IPCC published a “code red” warning on the climate. For Germans also deciding whom to vote for last September, alarming events at home and abroad drove home the urgency of the climate crisis, with deadly heat waves, wildfires and devastating floods that left more the 200 dead.

More recently, the Australian election in May became essentially a climate election, with the victorious centre-left putting climate change and environmental policy firmly back on the agenda. Closer to home, a feature of elections in Denmark and Finland in 2019 was that the climate also enjoyed a profile higher than ever before.

Meanwhile, however, the world seems to be going backwards on the climate. This week, the US Supreme Court ruled that the country’s main environmental regulator has no power to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demand for coal has shot up. Just months after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, there is a backlash in business circles against so-called “woke capitalism”, with the idea of environmental investment coming under attack from populist politicians and financiers.

Swedes themselves are consistently well-informed and concerned about the environment. The environment and climate are around fifth on the list of voters’ main concerns, after crime, health, schools and inflation. Immigration and refugee issues, which have long dominated the Swedish debate, are in sixth place, while defence and security – despite the debate over Nato – are down in seventh place, according to an Ipsos poll in June.

But at the polling booth, when it comes to casting their vote, it seems that most Swedes have little faith that political parties will make much difference. Despite the fact that the climate had such a high profile in 2018, the issue did not even end up among the top 10 reasons for choosing a party to vote for, according to polling station surveys commissioned by SVT. Instead, voters feel this is a global problem rather than a Swedish one. “It wouldn’t matter if every Swede held their breath so as not to emit a single molecule more of carbon dioxide – progress would still be negative,” the head of polling company Novus told Svensk Dagbladet last month.

So Sweden seems set to continue to make slow but unspectacular – and even disappointing – progress on the climate in coming years. It would be a shame if the country, with its solid record on the environment and its fondness for grand declarations about the future, were to become a byword for greenwashing rather than a beacon for a better world. Greta and her supporters have work to do here at home.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.