Emily James


Written by Kim Wilson
22 Wednesday 22nd February 2012

How did your career as filmmaker begin?

I took a course at Berkeley and caught the bug. In America, it isn’t something that people without trust funds do as a career and so I never considered it as an option. I then came to England and soon began to realise it was something that people did for a living. So I applied to the National Film & Television School and was really lucky to have got in.

Was there a turning point?

I really think it was the course at Berkeley; we watched a lot of fantastic, slightly obscure ethnographic documentaries and that gave me the intellectual passion. I remember having breakfast in London one day and overhearing a conversation between the waitress and a cab driver about a documentary that had been on TV the night before, and I thought to myself: we are not in Kansas anymore, that is not the sort of conversation you would ever overhear in America, where documentaries just aren’t a part of regular TV life. People like Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore have shown that you can be a successful documentary filmmaker without coming from a wealthy background, but they’re definitely the exception to the rule – it’s certainly not an easy way to make a living!

When did you become aware of activism?

While at the NFTS, I made a number of experimental documentaries including Wag the Dogma and A Brief history of Cuba in A minor, which led to me getting a commission with Channel 4. The Luckiest Nut in the World, broadcast in 2002, was about the effect of trade liberalisation on developing countries and took a satirical look at organisations like the WTO, the world bank and the IMF.

Aside from my own films, I also act as an Executive Producer: I spent a few years at Channel 4, working with young filmmakers to get them their first commission on the three-minute wonder strand. I also worked with Franny Armstrong on The Age of Stupid, which gave me a real leg up when I decided to make my own feature documentary.

How did you find the characters of Just Do It?

Initially it was pretty haphazard, I started turning up to meetings and actions and just talking to people. My aim was to have returning characters and a sufficient storyline. Needless to say the fluid nature of these groups meant that people I might film with one day, would then not be on the action the following week and then suddenly re-appear at another action a couple of weeks later. When I met Marina, I knew she was going to be a fantastic character. With others it took more time but by the time it came to film Copenhagen, I had built up relationships and they were happy to have me.

What were the main dangers of making this film?

The biggest danger was that our footage might be used in court against somebody - that would have been tragic - and I took extensive precautions to make sure that didn’t happen. But it was always a risk, and something that preyed on my mind. When I started out filming I was determined not to put anyone at risk due to my process.

On a personal level I never felt physically in danger, perhaps because I’ve done a lot of filming in protest situations and I’ve learned to read the signs; I certainly know how to weald my press card! I went to Genoa for Channel Four and was attacked: I was manhandled and my camera was broken. On that occasional, I was perhaps being a little too brazen but I have learnt to get out of the way at the last moment.

How did you prepare for Copenhagen?

Our main concern was keeping the footage safe and so we stuck to the same security measures that we’d been using and had a careful plan in place. In the film you see Lauren getting arrested and tapes being seized, but the tapes were decoys; they contained footage of people fighting with snowballs and similar innocuous scenes. We had organised a safe house but as we were subject to regular police searches, we’d decided that we needed to keep some tapes with us otherwise they’d tear the place apart looking for what we’d been filming.

What was the primary reason you made this film?

In late 2008, I was asked to film with Plane Stupid at Stansted Airport. I was immediately struck by the characters, the drama, and their bold response to the climate crisis that we all knew was unfolding. I could see immediately that the story of these activists needed to be told in a way that would give them their deserved place in history. So often we see the mainstream media paint a portrait of activists that plays to a populist ideal. I wanted to tell their story from their point of view; to shatter all of those illusions.

You got really involved. Do you think of yourself as an activist?

I’m motivated by trying to make the world a better place. The problem with using the word ‘activist’ is that it creates an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation – it is a useful shorthand but I would prefer to see a situation where everyone was more active.

Did you participate while filming?

While filming, no, I didn’t take part, but another filmmaker might have been even less involved. Channel Four legal advice suggests that when working with ‘criminals’ one shouldn’t lend pens or offer people lifts as that can be seen as aiding and abetting.

How has the film been received by the public?

We were really pleased that Just Do It got a national release last summer, which included a Q&A. Meeting audiences and answering their questions was incredibly rewarding. When making the film, I hoped it would reach an international audience so I’m really pleased we are taking it to America. The Occupy stuff has helped people to see why it’s relevant, had we cut it at a later date we would probably have included more about the process: the wavey hands, the meritocracy and the internal politics.

How long did it take to make the film?

Three years - a long time.

How did you fund the film?

The money came from a variety of sources: a quarter from crowd funding, a quarter from large individual donations, and the remainder from organisations like the Bertha Foundation, Cinereach and the BFI.

What does the future hold?

Trying to make a living without working in television – a feature for Vice on democracy in Europe and other platforms. Broadcast TV isn’t really doing it for me at the moment!

Click here for more on Emily's film Just do It and resources for how to get involved in climate activism.

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