At the age of twelve, Melati Wijsen and her sister started a successful campaign to ban the use of plastic bags and packaging on her native island of Bali. In the documentary Bigger Than Us (during filming) seeks out 18-year-old Melati young people who are campaigning in various countries, actions that are not just limited to the climate.
For example, the energetic Melati meets a Syrian refugee in Lebanon who has set up a school for children in refugee camps. In Malawi she meets a young woman who campaigns against the forced marriage of girls and in Brazil she talks to an activist who wants to make the favelas safer. Their stories are reviewed in a somewhat clumsy and unnecessary frame story.
Her meeting with Xiuhtezcatl Martinez in the US state of Colorado is impressive. The young Xiuhtezcatl, of indigenous descent, is a so-called ‘fracktivist’, someone who opposes fracking, a controversial method of extracting shale oil and shale gas from deep underground. Xiuhtezcatl tells Melati about “environmental racism.” When oil companies wanted to set up a fracking project near a predominantly white school, concerned parents balked and the project was moved to next door to a predominantly black school—the one Xiuhtezcatl attended.
Melati ends up in homeland Indonesia. There, the metropolis of Jakarta is threatened by rising sea levels. Not to mention the air pollution and unstoppable population growth of Jakarta that are exacerbating the climate crisis. Understandable, because the images of Bantar Gebang in West Java, one of the largest garbage dumps in the world, are depressing enough. About 18,000 families live on this garbage dump. A drone shot shows how immense this mountain of waste is very unhealthy for residents.
A similar image, but of another huge garbage dump, is in Invisible Demons† This alarmist documentary is more depressing than the positive story-filled Bigger Than Us† Maker Rahul Jain shows his hometown of Delhi, which (among other things) struggles with smog, extreme heat waves and polluted drinking water. He talks in voice-over about his own privileged position as an ‘air-conditioned child’, the poorest of the poor can never afford such a device. That these air fresheners guzzle energy only adds to Delhi’s immense problems. But they are indispensable in the fight against the invisible demons (the smog particles) from the title: “Poison Darts That Pierce Our Lungs”.
Jain speaks to a number of city residents about the climate crisis, such as a ferryman sailing the heavily polluted Yamuna – the gunk in the river speaks volumes. He determines that even the gods can no longer solve this. The Indian sacred cow also gasps in Jain’s powerful imagery-filled documentary, which also deals with consumerism and unbridled capitalism.
It is recommended not to watch both documentaries, which will be part of the ‘cinema for the climate’ program of the Cannes film festival in 2021, in succession. That leads to a deep depression. The statistics discussed in the two films make no bones about it: it may already be too late to turn things around for the better. “Later is too late” is a banner in the otherwise hopeful mood Bigger Than Us† Although Melati is optimistic and calls on young people to take joint action to turn the tide, her worst fear seems more realistic: that nothing will change.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of June 1, 2022