Just Do It

White middle-class activists these days, what are they like, eh?

Usually the only time direct action hits the news is when something has gone wrong, such as when a passerby was killed by the police at the G20 protests in 2009. Usually, news programmes leave such stories to the end. 'And finally... three men chained themselves to a public toilet today in Greenwich...'

Environmental activist groups like Plane Stupid and Climate Camp have a reputation for being amusing – or annoying, depends how you see it – but ultimately ineffectual do-gooders. But, where most activists are satisfied with socially acceptable slogan-shouting, these groups are willing to take direct action to help their causes.

They chain themselves to the head offices of 'the capitalist oppressors', lay siege to nuclear facilities and throw custard pies in the faces of hated politicians. Violence is avoided. The activists swear that in any confrontations, it is the police who are invariably the aggressors. 

In Just Do It: A Tale of Modern Day Outlaws, they take the audience along as they protest against a proposed new runway at Heathrow, job losses at a wind turbine factory, and carbon trading at the Copenhagen climate summit. An alternative title may have been Dangerous Activist Adventures for Boys (And Girls).

There's Marina, who knows the British way of dealing with conflict or disaster is to have a cup of tea. She brings her kettle along to demonstrations and sit-ins, pouring indiscriminately for activist and police alike.

Then there is Sophie, who runs for MP on an independent, anti-capitalist ticket, and Lily, who decided to move with missionary zeal to a village threatened by the Heathrow 3rd runway plans. Not to forget Sally and Rowan and Paul, and various other young people who, with their Afghan scarves and alternative hairstyles, are ready to change the world.

And have the privilege to do so. It is clear early on in the documentary, as their ideology stumbles over their privilege, that most of these activists are white and middle-class. They can afford their activism because they don't come from a demographic with a history of institutional discrimination. It can be hard to take their anti-capitalist stance seriously when it is obvious that they are being funded by parents with good, capitalist jobs.
Sally, for example, complains that her education at Cambridge doesn’t connect with the real world, seemingly unaware that many in 'the real world' would envy her that education. And at a planning meeting, a group of young people are willing to be arrested, as long as they are only risking community service.

Are they aware that they wouldn’t survive a day in jail, or are they concerned about how a criminal record will affect their job prospects?

What the filmmakers are especially blind to is how complex and ironic their relationship with the Powers That Be actually is. In one scene a group of them travel to Copenhagen in a VW camper van to disrupt the biggest ever climate summit. On the way they get stopped by the Danish police.

They expect police brutality and confiscation of their Maalox (brought to counter tear gas), but after a passport check they are sent on their way with a 'have a nice journey'. At such moments, and later when the Danish police are determinedly patient in explaining their legal obligations, the insistence of the documentary makers that the law is unjust and oppressive rings very hollow indeed. 

Marina may be an exception. She isn't the most militant activist of the bunch, but she is the most experienced and she is the one who gives up the most. For four months she camped out in front of a wind turbine factory. When a policeman she had gotten friendly with is forced to arrest her, she is dismayed.

Activists in Northern Ireland were never so genteel. Perhaps that is why this brand of protest is unusual here. After growing up watching riots on the streets, a strongly worded letter seems more effective than chaining yourself to the George Best Airport's gates.

Ultimately, Just Do It is a propaganda document, with all the lack of objectivity and introspection that implies. At the end the audience knows what the activists do, but not why they do it? What drives them personally? How effective are their actions, in the end?

The only one who has an answer to that is Marina. For her, doing something is better than nothing, and she chooses empowerment over a feeling of despair. It's hard to dislike people so determined to change the world in the face of such enormous odds.

Just Do It was screened at the Queen's Film Theatre. For other films, check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On guide.