Christi Cooper is setting politics aside for a searing look at the government’s role in the climate crisis.
But, if you find yourself, like me, exhausted by our recent political turmoil, fear not. Yes, Cooper’s new documentary Youth v Gov is unflinching in its commitment to showing you just how decades of government action has led to our current moment of unprecedented environmental damage. But it’s also a celebration of a new generation of kids fighting, in the courts and in the streets to bring attention to, and change our current circumstances. They are fighting for their futures, and in turn, working to ensure all of us a greater quality of life. We owe these children a debt of gratitude for their work, and at the very least an open mind when listening to their message. Youth v Gov is an excellent place to start.
Awards Daily: You have a background in science, and you’re a filmmaker. Talk me through that and how you ultimately ended up here with this incredible documentary?
Christi Cooper: Sure. I got my master’s in microbiology here in the U.S., moved to Germany, and got my Ph.D. in neuroscience. I was working in the science and stem cell field. Eventually, I came back to the U.S. to get my MFA in science and natural history filmmaking wanting to focus on science communication.
I landed in this story through a project that I did in 2011, a documentary short series, Stories of Trust, featuring youth plaintiffs who were suing their state governments over climate change. And that introduced me to this whole concept of climate litigation and youth in the courts and how youth who can’t vote can actually create change through the courts. And I stayed connected with a lot of those plaintiffs afterward through the organization, Our Children’s Trust, which supported those youths.
When these plaintiffs filed Juliana vs. The United States in 2016, I thought this was an opportunity to dive a little deeper into why young Americans have a constitutional right to a stable climate system and create a story that can reach a larger audience and generate more impact around this topic.
AD: As you mentioned, you did go to school overseas. I’m curious what you learned about how people internationally communicate about science and how that then informed your perspective on how we as Americans approach climate change.
CC: Yeah, that’s a great question. My experience living in Germany and Sweden was that most Europeans and European media are much less afraid to talk about heavy and complex topics in-depth. The audience’s much more willing to engage in those topics. The media organizations, I think, do a lot less pandering to the ratings than here in the U.S. It was always very interesting for me to watch the evening TV shows. They really dove into complex scientific topics. You know, you go to work the next day, and your colleagues would be talking about the show they saw the previous night. I just felt like, in general, those topics were just a little bit more front and center in the culture and society.
I think that the way that our media and society interact with scientific content or more complicated topics like climate change or legal topics, we’re very focused on entertainment and easily digestible material. I would say that I was challenged by what I experienced in Europe, with the hope that people can actually digest this content, and it can still be entertaining.
AD: One thing that really struck me about the documentary is that it’s very bipartisan, and not political in the way that I wasn’t expecting. It’s equal in its criticisms of both parties and very neutral in that sense. Why did you choose to present the story in that way?
CC: Yeah, I’m so glad that was your experience with it. We tried really hard to create a film that was not partisan and did not continue to create a divide in this country and certainly not continue to politicize climate change.
I think once I had a better understanding of what has happened over the last six decades with our government and once I understood the evidence that these youth are bringing before the court, I understood that every administration across the board, republican and democratic, didn’t matter; every administration across the board has willfully acted in creating this crisis.
So it was really important for me to share that information in a way that was non-political. It’s really more about the facts and it’s about the government’s role in terms of its responsibility to its citizens and how we hold them accountable.
AD: I grew up along the Texas Gulf Coast, so hurricanes were a big part of my childhood and my life currently. The elements of the documentary that really struck me were seeing the children from Louisiana talking about having to save their things and climb up to the highest points of their homes to avoid floodwaters. And I wondered what parts of the film or the climate crisis have connected with you or stayed with you in that similar way?
CC: I think over the years of working with these young people and understanding and seeing that the future that they’re going to experience is going to look a lot different than the childhood and my younger years that I had. I’m 49 now and I think back to my twenties and thirties and never even thought about what my future looked like and whether or not it was going to be safe. And if my home would be there, whether my family would be displaced. I think the disproportionate impact of climate change on these young people is what really strikes me. It just motivates me to tell these stories.
AD: And from a filmmaker’s perspective, when you’re with this group for so long, and you have so much footage, how did you decide what the arc of that story was going to be?
CC: Yeah, that’s a great question too. Part of the challenge in creating the film is that we had these amazing, very personal stories of these plaintiffs. But it was also set in the background of this very important and monumental legal case. And also all of this historical, archival evidence. How do you weave that together? You know, someone might look at that and go, ‘Well, that’s three different films.’ And I really wanted to weave them together so that it was really clear how they all interacted with each other.
I had two editors working on the film from the beginning. And we dove into the material, and we kind of also looked at the case and how the case was laid out. We decided that we should frame the story around the three elements of standing that someone has to prove to file a lawsuit against somebody.
Because we’re also trying to figure out how we tell the story of this super complicated legal case. And a lot of people don’t understand how the legal system works. So we decided to tell the story in this three-act structure that used the three elements of standing, which are showing that you’ve been directly impacted because you have a harm that you can show, showing who caused that harm, and then showing that the court can provide a remedy and address the situation. And so that’s how we broke up the three acts of the film.
The first act of the film is focused on the harm that the plaintiffs are suffering from. The second act is about who caused it; it’s the government. And this is how we know you can go back 60 years and show what the government did. The third act is about how the court can address the problem, whether they do, and what the outcome is if they don’t.
AD: Watching the documentary, I felt a lot of despair. Like, how did we get here? And then ultimately left feeling hopeful, like maybe we’re on the precipice of something here. Do you feel that same sense of hope? What are your thoughts on that?
CC: Absolutely. You know, when I started telling the story, there had been people fighting on the front lines of this for decades. And you see some of these scientists in the film who have been trying to get the story out for the last 40 to 60 years, and no one has been listening to them.
But when I started on this, there weren’t people marching in the streets. There wasn’t a youth movement. There wasn’t this connection to the social justice elements of climate change. And over the time of working on this film, we’ve gone to having the first People’s Climate March and the first Food Climate March. Greta [Thunberg] has appeared on the scene, these kids have testified before the UN, they testified before committees in the Senate, and I’ve seen this whole movement grow over the course of creating this film, which is why we ended with that hope with the film because I really do believe that something has started that can’t be stopped.
There’s a lot of power that comes with this truth of knowing what your government has done and who’s to blame and who’s responsible for the problem. And I think there’s no turning back now on this movement. The younger generation is activated. There’s knowledge there. They also understand that even if they can’t vote, their voice has power and that there is a system that they can plug into to create that change. So, I do feel hopeful. I do think that there are a lot of opportunities to move forward. And I think the Biden administration has the momentum to have a different outcome than the previous administrations have had.
AD: That’s interesting because one of the things that the documentary really highlights is the difference between rhetoric and action. It sounds like you feel that we’ve moved past the rhetoric, and hopefully, we will see some movement toward action at this point.
CC: Yeah. I think there’s more pressure for that, definitely. But I think there’s a lot of work still to do on the ground to make that happen.
AD: Regardless of your political standing, I hope people approach this film with an open mind. What’s your message to audiences as they seel out the film?
CC: I think I would want them to know that this is about the journey of young people taking ownership over their constitutional rights and holding the government accountable. That the youth voice matters.
The background story is climate change, but this is really about our rights as citizens. It’s a much bigger story than just climate change. This is really about what our original founders even intended for the government to do for its citizens and what that representation looks like.
Learn more about Youth v Gov by visiting their website and watch a brand new clip of the film below: