Maia Kenworthy is the co-director of the BAFTA-nominated Rebellion, alongside Elena Sánchez Bellot. The documentary goes behind-the-scenes of Extinction Rebellion, whose peaceful demonstrations in 2019 brought London to a standstill and became the largest act of UK civil disobedience since the Suffragettes. In this piece, Kenworthy details the challenges of Rebellion.
About ten years ago, Elena and I met in a documentary film masters program in London and became good friends. A few years later, our tutor sent a message: “A friend of mine has got in touch and asked whether I have any alumni students that might be interested in making a film about a new climate group called Extinction Rebellion (XR).”
Elena and I were working freelance at the time — making films for charities, teaching, that kind of thing. We figured this new group might be worth a look, so I went along to their first press conference.
“We’re going to shut down central London. We’re not messing about anymore. Now is the time for disruption,” Roger Hallam, a farmer from Wales and XR co-founder, stated assuredly. This was November 2018.
I was also introduced to someone from their media team. “Ah, you’re a filmmaker,” they said. “We have a non-violent direct action workshop this weekend, and then protests starting on Monday — come along?”
Immediately we realized that many of the people joining this lawbreaking group were completely new to activism: nurses, teachers, accountants – people we really didn’t expect were signing up.
Then we met Farhana Yamin, a climate expert and environmental lawyer who’d spent decades working at the United Nations. She’d been instrumental in making the Paris Agreement happen, and yet here she was, readying herself to get arrested for the first time in her life. I ended up spending a couple of weeks with her at the U.N. conference in Poland that year, whilst Elena spent time in Stroud with XR co-founder Dr. Gail Bradbrook. We were hopeful they’d let us follow them around with a camera — and luckily, they said yes.
Embedding With Extinction Rebellion
Embedding with XR in the run up to the April 2019 protests was tricky at times. The group was picking up steam and constantly onboarding people, so every meeting had new faces and there were moments our presence was challenged: “Who are you and what are you filming for?”
With mainstream press already trying to undermine them, these were fair questions. We’d explain we were just there to document things — we were working independently, no commission or production company behind us — and suggested it might be good to have these early meetings on record.
Over time we seemed to become trusted historians — at least that’s how we saw ourselves.
We had no idea if XR would succeed at disrupting central London, or if anything would actually come of the footage we were gathering. Uncertainty was something we had to learn to accept, and I imagine this is the case with all observational documentaries — you have to wait patiently for the story to unfold.
But the commitment and hard work of all those joining XR was plain to see (we gave up many a weekend following the group!) and we were very curious about what would happen. Curiosity kept us turning up.
The impact of the April Rebellion in 2019 far exceeded our expectations. Elena often said it felt like we were in a movie, as things were happening so fast and we couldn’t quite believe it. After 10 days of bringing London to a standstill, XR were all over the news and everyone was talking about them.
Government ministers were now keen to meet the group and we followed XR’s political team, including Farhana, into these meetings. Within a month of their protests, the UK parliament declared a climate emergency (making it the first in the world to do so) and shortly after that, the UK legislated a net-zero emissions target, making it the first major economy to do so. I remember calling Farhana in tears, astonished by what they’d achieved.
New challenges came our way after XR’s sudden rise to fame: namely, TV crews. It felt like everyone wanted the inside scoop, and had begun digging around for more personal storylines. As we’d followed their journey closely so far, we were keen to keep going — especially as we’d really got to know people and felt best placed to tell their stories.
So we had to blinker ourselves from other filmmakers, a difficult task when they had fancier camera equipment and TV commissions in place! Fortunately, we met producer Kat Mansoor around this time, and she helped us navigate the industry. Kat also started to build a team around the film, and got us in gear to raise a budget. We were a year into filming and had zero funds.
Story-wise, things became a whole lot more complicated — and interesting. While I was at a meeting with Kat, my phone started lighting up with texts from Elena. “Things are kicking off in Stroud! XR Youth have arrived out of nowhere!”
During a meeting over Roger’s controversial plans to shut down Heathrow airport, some younger activists — including Roger’s daughter Savannah — had interrupted and openly challenged the power imbalances of the group. They were fed up with the focus on arrests and felt it was time for XR to think about what it could build: What was the change they wanted to see? Where does climate justice feature in all this?
The list of things we learned while making Rebellion is long. To name a few: Keep your camera batteries fully charged, at all times. Expect the unexpected. Filmmaking involves endless paperwork. The media has a lot to answer for. The roots of the climate crisis lie in colonialism and capitalism. Anyone can be an ‘activist.’ Be careful when carrying paint or superglue in your handbag (Farhana learnt the hard way).
Perhaps most importantly: Keep learning. The more open-minded we can be, the better.
Rebellion is now in selected theaters from Hope Runs High and is available on VOD.