A couple of weeks ago I got a call from an old friend. A talented documentarian who’d lived near Asheville years ago, she’d since moved to Washington DC, and had become one Greenpeace’s head video producers. She couldn’t tell me what the call was about — cell phones aren’t secure enough, I was informed — so we set up a Skype meeting a few days later (it seems Skype is indeed encrypted and secure).
I was asked to be a part of a team making a video for Greenpeace. They were planning an event in Asheville where they would sneak into a local Progress Energy power facility, climb the unusually enormous stacks, and hang a banner protesting the fact that this coal plant used mountaintop removal coal. Progress Energy had done a very good job convincing the local community (I was among them) that the plant was one of the cleanest in the nation. Progress had installed ‘scrubbers’ on the stacks that made them emit primarily steam, but what they weren’t telling us is that the pollutants were being directed into onsite ‘coal ash ponds’ instead of the sky. A fair trade, I guess.
Greenpeace’s primary plan was for 16 activists to storm the plant and break into teams. One team would climb the coal conveyor belt, stopping it, and hang a banner. The more daring team would climb the 407 foot tall tower and hang a huge banner that was visible from the nearby highway.
I was to be positioned with the media team and the local news folks, and give Greenpeace the sort of ENG footage that would fold in well to a video press release. It would be a long day, I was assured. The activists would undoubtedly be arrested and charged with misdemeanor trespassing, so it was a waiting game how far they would get before the party was over.
We arrived before sunrise, while the activists were slipping inside the facility. There was lots of time to talk to the other Greenpeace folks, who I found to be spirited, knowledgeable and extremely polite. I consider myself a fairly informed individual, but these guys were in another class — they’d devoted their lives to changing the world. I quickly realized it was best to just soak it all in — their internal culture was very specific and quite fascinating. It was time to be a fly on the wall.
To make use of several ‘news cycles,’ the climbers had plans to spend the night up on the tower (it was well below freezing), but their bedrolls were apprehended in the rush, so the shoot was shorter than it was hoped.
After everyone was brought in, I was asked to go to the local detention facility where the climbers were being processed, and interview them as they came out. They’d been on a real adventure, and you could see the light in their eyes. They were ebullient — risking death, incarceration and civil disobedience (which is harder than it sounds) in order to speak out on principal. To say I admire them is an under-statement. I realized I looked up to them — indeed, the entire Greenpeace team did. They were heroes.
That night I went back to their rented house for the after party. A rural mansion fit for a rock star was crowded with 40-odd Greenpeace members eating Thai food and celebrating their victory. Though I was tired, I was happy to be there, and to have been a part of it.
One of the questions I ask myself before I accept a video job is, Will the time be well spent? Is it worth it? In this case I can answer yes. Yes, it was.