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Bigger Than Us

Director: Flore Vasseur (France). Year of Release: 2021

Bigger Than Us starts by looking at Melati Wijsen’s campaign to rid her homeland of Indonesia of plastic bags. She explains “I was 12, my sister was 10, we had no plan or strategy”. Nonetheless they set up the campaign “Bye Bye Plastic Bags”, whose success resulted in Melati addressing the United Nations. Melatis is now 18 and tells us that she will travel the world, accompanied by a film team to talk to other activists her own age.

Next up is Mohamad Al Jounde, a Syrian refugee, whose family had to flee Assad because they were politically active within the Arab Spring. Mohamad, still only 18 today, set up a school for refugees in Lebanon. The schools provide a service which is not just educational – they give structure to the lives of young people who have forgotten what time is. A quarter of the population of Lebanon are refugees, and without the hope offered by schooling they lose all sense of purpose.

In the voiceover, Melati tells us that Memory Banda raised the marriage age for girls in Malawi from 15 to 18. Pacé Brecht, we are inclined to ask if she didn’t even have a cook, but maybe this is unfair. Whoever did the legwork, Memory was part of a massive change within a patriarchal society. “Tradition” sent pubescent girls to camps, where they were initiated into womanhood by being raped. The work of Memory and others has helped shut down a lot of these camps.

Mary Finn, 22, provides a little more political context from Lesbos. She is active rescuing refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. Mary is obviously frustrated at the millions sent by the EU to Turkey to secure the borders. In this context, she sees some possible human gains in the breakdown of diplomatic relations between the EU and Turkey. Looking at a pile of thousands of abandoned life jackets, Mary retains focus by thinking of the individuals who wore each one.

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is a 19-year old anti-fracking campaigner in Colorado, USA: He correctly notes the institutional racism that means that fracking centres tend to be placed near schools attended by poor non-white kids. And yet you feel that rather than making common cause with the white parents who successfully prevented a mine being built near their kids’ school, he may be blaming them. An unspoken part of the film is identifying who are possible partners, and who is the enemy.

Rene Silva, a 25-year old from the favelas in Brazil is more explicit than most in naming the enemy. He is a committed anti-capitalist who has been on a number of demonstrations against neoliberal president Jair Bolsonara. Seeing the dominance of the right-wing press, Rene set up an alternative newspaper, telling news from and for working class people. While all working class people face exploitation, Rene notes the extra problem of being Black within a racist society.

Finally, we meet Winnie Tushabe, a Ugandan food activist. Reacting to the attempt of multinationals to drive farmers off their land, Winnie has been campaigning for sustainable agriculture, especially for the women who lose most from capitalist exploitation. She notes that unlike parochial countries in the Global North, Uganda has welcomed refugees. This means that refugees play a central role in the initiative that she has set up for clean farming.

I do have some criticisms of Bigger Than Us, but it would be remiss to mention them before acknowledging the remarkable contributions made by each and every one of the people interviewed. At an age when most of us were still trying to make sense of life, they are doing their best to help fellow human beings, and to change the world for the better. Some of them even go as far as identifying the problem as capitalism. What’s not to like here?

Well, it is in the nature of the film that it concentrates on individuals. Melati asks Memory if she’s going to become a politician. The sense is that the world is not changed by social movements but by decrees from on high. Some of the campaigns focus upon convincing leading politicians, as if most politicians do not have a material interest in maintaining the status quo. For all the casual mentions of capitalism, there are few concrete analyses of what causes the problems we see.

The film’s “Just do it” attitude is a welcome antidote to much modern-day cynicism, but it does beg some questions. Mohamad forms a school, Rene starts a newspaper. Winnie forms an NGO. These are all laudable moves, but their conditions are left vague. Who finances the projects, and what do they expect in return? Who pays the workers, or are they expected to run on free labour and self-exploitation? It is not that this would be terrible, but a debate about funding would be helpful.

You feel very early on that this is a film which could go two ways. There is something almost Thatcherite in celebrating individual actions. The whole concept – a young woman takes a film crew around the world – hints at undeclared finances without saying who is providing them and with which expectations. But then again, an early clip shows Greta Thunberg attacking politicians and prominent people of being eager to take selfies but not carrying out any serious change.

Better Than Us is a call for action. At the same time, it tends to believe that action – any action – is enough. At times it descends into reactionary Malthusianism, which sees more of a problem in population growth than in an inhumane allocation of resources. And it offers little strategy. But when was it the duty of a small documentary film to provide a fully thought-out plan of how to overcome the problems that it shows? Yes, it could be better, but surely what is is is good enough.

Bigger Than Us is a film that raises more questions than it answers, but this is a good thing, We shouldn’t expect a low-budget documentary to provide a deeply thought out strategy for building resistance. At least it provides some experiences on which such an analysis can be based.

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