By Tracie Bedell
Slater Jewell-Kemker is unstoppable. For 10 years, the 25 year-old filmmaker traveled the globe, chronicling the vibrant, untold story of the global youth climate movement. Her film, “Youth Unstoppable,” is making its Chicago-area premiere at the 2019 One Earth Film Fest, and we had the chance to catch up with her to talk about the film, how she got started, and what kept her going.
At 15, what made you choose film as the medium for your climate change message?
I was born in Los Angeles to parents who were involved in writing, journalism, film etc., and from a young age I fell in love with movies and that kind of visual storytelling. So when I found myself in the climate change world, seeing young people not being given the respect and voice they deserved as the next generation inheriting this mess, I knew I had to do something. As a 15 year old, I didn’t feel comfortable putting my body on the line (chaining myself to a reactor or something along those lines), but I knew I could film the people who were, I could capture and share their stories and raise awareness—make a difference by touching people’s hearts. And, as docs have a tendency to do, it kinda took over my life.
How was your project initially received by adults, officials you had to negotiate with, and so forth?
I think a lot of adults who granted me interviews thought I’d be a pushover because I was a kid, so they were very surprised when I asked them hard questions. I was supported by mentors at Avaaz.org and other organizations that also felt strongly about youth voices in the climate change conversation, so I didn’t come up against as much pushback as you’d think. But I also chose to spend most of my time with activists my age, so it ended up being a plus because I was non-threatening and I think overall everyone I talked to felt comfortable opening up to me because of that, because it was just me and a camera.
How were you able to maintain momentum for filming over a 10-year period? What kept you going personally?
I have to admit, it was hard at times to keep going over a decade-long project. Of course, there were many moments of unfettered joy and conviction in the work I was doing, feeling like I was doing something that actually mattered, being surrounded by community that could clearly see a path forward into a just, regenerative and caring world... that’s been incredible... but the climate realm can be depressing. We’ve known about the science for decades and there still is a lot of resistance to the mass change needed in order to survive as a species. Because we didn’t change incrementally over time, we have to embrace fast, radical change right now. It’s easier to live with blinders on and not question how we’re connected to the world around us by simple decisions we make every day. It’s easier to not look outside of the bubble we are encouraged to live in. There’s a lot of money in the fossil fuel industry, in the industrial agricultural realm, etc., that want to keep being successful for as long as possible, even knowing that we have 10 years left before it’s too late to adapt. That’s hard. But thankfully, I have family and friends who are incredibly supportive and help me not get too sucked down into despair, especially my mom, Wendy, who is one of the producers on this film. Without her, there would be no film.
How did you scout locations and connect with other young adults looking to affect climate change? How many locations did you ultimately film?
Ultimately, the locations were chosen because either my subjects, friends I’ve met at UN Climate Change Conferences lived there—Nepal, Northern Alberta, etc.,—or because of where that year’s UN Climate Change Conference was being held, for example, Copenhagen, Cancun, Paris. We shot in eight countries and had about 400 hours of footage.
What was the best part of the 10-year odyssey? And the most challenging? Anything you would do differently?
The best part of the journey would be the connections and community I’ve found and become a part of, and the friendships I cherish with friends around the world. I look at the world in a completely different way, and, because of that and I am truly grateful. While the climate crisis is overwhelming and scary, I also now view it as an incredible opportunity for innovation and a shift of consciousness for the better. I feel more connected to the planet, and I feel hopeful that people are essentially good and want to win. Maybe that’s naive, but I have to believe we can win because it’s the rest of my life that’s affected.
The most challenging thing would be the editing process, which was two years, with 400 hours of footage on about five different formats! That was an interesting mess to untangle and make sense of, but I also worked with two incredible editors, Mike Munn and Nick Taylor, who truly saved me from myself.
Have you kept in touch with film subjects? Do you plan on returning to see how the needle has moved?
Yes, I do keep in touch with my subjects, one of whom will be joining us on the screening March 2nd. We’ve gone through a lot together and share deep bonds of friendship that are not affected by time. My friends in Nepal and I are creating an off-the-grid climate safe house/community center for use as a prototype in South East Asia which I'm very excited about.
Meet Slater, See “Youth Unstoppable”
Meet Slater at the film festival’s Opening Night Launch Parties on March 1 at DIRTT, and at the March 2 showing of “Youth Unstoppable” at the Pickwick Theatre in Park Ridge. Can’t make it those dates? See the film for free at the Oak Park Public Library on March 6. Details are online here. Teens and young adults encouraged to attend. Please note the film may contain heavy themes, graphic images or language.