Legend has it that exited (m)ad man Dan Wieden whooped “You Nike guys, you just do it” to a bunch of senior honchos from Nike while discussing their advertising strategy. He had coined a beautifully simple global marketing slogan still in use more than 20 years later. It is also a phrase, it turns out, that can be used by those less sympathetic to corporate causes. Just Do It follows a group of environmental protesters as they too ‘do it’ and take on The (global warming-creating) Man.
It’s with a cheeky smirk that climate change activists pinch the slogan of such a classic example of a bad-guy corporation. This lot are deadly serious, but they know that humour breaks down barriers and makes a message more attractive. Just Do It focuses on how climate change activists try to gain publicity, rather than the reasons why they are protesting. We gather they are trying to avert impending ecological destruction, but it is not the place of this film to get into the nitty gritty of the scientific facts.
Someone explains the thinking thus, “It doesn’t matter if it’s big or small, legal or not – you’ve just got to do it.” They have probably taken inspiration from any number of sentences or phrases from Henry David Thoreau’s pamphlet Civil Disobedience, but Thoreau wasn’t really one for snappy sentences. “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.” doesn’t have the same snappy ring as “Just do it”. It’s no coincidence that these protesters use a tried and tested advertising slogan: Raising awareness – marketing – is the name of their game.
The US-born UK-based director, Emily James, filmed a handful of young activists over a year, although we don’t really get to know them much beyond their crusading. One woman explains that she is classified by Special Branch as a ‘domestic extremist’. This sounds like she might be building fertiliser bombs in a garage, but violence (to people at least) isn’t on the agenda. The MI5 website describes domestic extremists as posing “a threat to public order, but not national security.” Marina, clad in granny-chic pill box hat and shawl, uses tea as a campaign device. Whichever power station, factory or London street she is protesting on, a good strong brew is administered along with a few friendly words with the cops.
The death of Evening Standard-seller Ian Tomlinson at the G-20 protests in 2009 after being struck by the police has meant massive changes to the way these events are handled. The police have had to reduce their violence, and at the same time protesters have become even more adept at getting their point across. Just Do It gives a glimpse at the degree of planning which goes into events that might only make one evening news bulletin. The protesters use some incredibly crafty tricks to ensure they are not evicted from the sites they squat, although often it comes down to battles of brute force with the police.
The documentary manages to follow a number of ‘actions’, from trying to close down a coal-fired power station to picketing and sitting in on RBS offices. The emotional journey – excitement, fear, humour and indignation – of protesting is vividly conveyed. It all leads up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2009 held Copenhagen when a small gang just get on the ferry and go to do it in Denmark. There they come face-to-face with the initially friendly and Scandinavian-in-the-modern-sense (ie mellow and liberal) police who gradually change into chisel-jawed Scandinavians-in-the-old-sense (Vikings).
Having lived through the nineties, I noticed protesters in the noughties and teens seem a lot less, erm, crusty than their counterparts in the nineties. Less rave culture is mixed into the protests. The focus of attention has moved from local concerns, like building bypasses through Sites of Special Scientific interest, to the global threat of climate change. A much more ambitious target. At one point the question is asked of an activist, “Does all this do any good?” to which they answer, “You can’t do nothing, that wouldn’t be any good.” Whether these guys manage to start a Green Socialist revolution or not is moot, but at least they tried.