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Glasgow Film Festival 2023: How To Blow Up a Pipeline

By Jeevan Farthing

Ethical and practical questions persist in this dive into the unflinching, uncomfortable context behind direct action.

Why To Blow Up a Pipeline is perhaps a more appropriate title for the book this climate crisis thriller is based on. Yet Andreas Malm’s theoretical and intellectual justification of direct action, sabotage and property destruction in tackling the climate emergency is almost less philosophical than Daniel Goldhaber’s screen adaptation, which provides a nuanced account of a group of environmental activists as they attempt to destroy an oil refinery.

One of several programmes chosen by Glasgow Film Festival’s young selectors for its importance to our generation, the film’s ensemble cast are far from a homogenous mix. How To Blow Up a Pipeline importantly dispels the tabloid myth that climate activists are all white, middle-class and with the bank of mum and dad at their disposal. While Logan’s character necessarily and irritatingly embodies this, there is far more to Xochitl than her easily dismissable “I dropped out of school after reading a book” backstory suggests. Much of the group suffer from trauma, whether that be coping with grief, family breakdown, alcoholism or terminal illness, and some of this results directly from the fossil fuel industrial complex.

The group are quintessentially human. They don’t get along with each other until they start drinking, and many of their characters are deeply flawed. Michael is abrasive and aggressive, while the ideological dogmatism and excessive dedication of some members leads to mistakes and hurt, both emotional and physical.

What’s best about How To Blow Up a Pipeline is that there are no clear winners or losers. Whether you think the group has succeeded is entirely subjective, and this reflects the messy reality of activism. People are strung along, and cast as collateral damage against their will. The work itself is grim, unpleasant and not always rewarding, carrying barrels of powder across the bleak Texas desert in the run-up to Christmas. There is seldom agreement on coordination, and the necessity of keeping a low-profile leads to this assortment of random people assimilating the roles of scientists, medics, labourers and carers, with mixed success.

While Malm’s persuasive and optimistic rebuttal of climate fatalism isn’t exactly replicated in the film, perhaps it’s better that way. You leave How To Blow Up a Pipeline feeling confused, uncomfortable, and reeling from adrenaline, and this is just as valid a response to the depiction of climate emergency in culture. The film gives airtime to the questions that a thirty second report on another Fridays for Future protest, or an inspirational insta post, cannot: Who is a terrorist, and who isn’t? Which groups of people need to be sacrificed?

Why are they doing it? None of the characters properly explain this, but it’s surely another strength of the film, and boomerangs the question: why aren’t you doing it?


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