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The train from Copenhagen, Denmark, to Malmo, Sweden, stops at Copenhagen airport, where sunkissed holidaymakers and vacationers carrying ski equipment cram onto the carriage. I’m sitting next to documentary filmmaker Nathan Grossman, as he turns his camera on and inconspicuously starts filming. Greta Thunberg sits opposite us, diminutive in her purple puffer jacket and tired from three days straight of traveling from London to Stockholm by train. It’s been a long journey with several last-minute dashes to board our seven different trains on time, the three of us traveling together with Svante, Thunberg’s father, who sits at my other side. Returning to Thunberg’s home in Stockholm by air, as these travelers have done, would have been more straightforward. But for Thunberg, who was 16 at the time we made this journey across Europe in May 2019, flying is out of the question due to the level of carbon emissions that airplanes produce. The four of us silently acknowledge that there’s something ironic about these travelers, having just flown back from their holiday destinations, recognizing Thunberg sitting quietly on this train and asking to take selfies with her.
It’s these juxtapositions, blending an inside look at Thunberg’s private life with the way she is perceived by the public, that Grossman sought to capture in his new documentary, I AM GRETA, out on Hulu Nov. 13. Narrated by Thunberg in her native Swedish, and incorporating archival and family footage with scenes captured by Grossman, the film is a deeply personal look at the many dimensions of the world’s most famous teenager, whom outsiders might think they know very well. “She’s of course this activist, and this icon, but I also very much see her as just a teenager, and that’s what I think you can convey when you do something more personal,” says Grossman. He started filming Thunberg when she began her school strike for the climate outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm in the summer of 2018, five months before her speech at the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP24) made her a household name.
Revealing the inner monologue of a public figure
Grossman had heard about Thunberg’s plan for a strike through a mutual friend, and initially planned to film her sitting down outside the Swedish Parliament for perhaps a day or two, to see what she was like. “Yeah, sure. As long as you leave me space, and you don’t disturb my activism, it’s okay,” he recalls her saying. Famously, Thunberg eschews small talk, preferring to save her words for speeches and interviews. But that doesn’t mean she’s not talkative about topics she cares about, like the climate crisis. Nor is she always solemn. Grossman’s film shows her playful side, laughing and bickering with her father, cooking at home with her mother, and talking with other youth activists about the pressures they face. It’s a multi-dimensional portrait of a young person who has been at the center of huge, headline-generating moments on the world stage, from telling world leaders at the U.N. that they have failed young people, to telling climate protesters in Madrid during COP25 last year that “we are the ones who are leading.”
Thunberg’s narration offers viewers a real understanding of the specific way she sees the world. Some of this voiceover comes from notes she had written in her diary and shared with Grossman. “I was more and more interested in her inner monologue,” he says. “With her Asperger’s syndrome [a mild form of autism] it’s easier to convey on film how she feels and what she thinks.” In a scene where Thunberg is taking quiet time away from the glare of cameras and microphones surrounding her, she pets her dogs and her horses, reflecting on how learning about climate change at school made her feel depressed and anxious. “I don’t actually see the world in black and white,” says Thunberg in the film. “It’s just the climate issue I see in black and white.”
Evgenia Arbugaeva for TIMEGreta Thunberg writes in her journal on the train as she travels from Lisbon to Madrid for a U.N. climate conference on Dec. 5, 2019.
Much like Thunberg, Grossman did not anticipate that the one-person strike she started would take off on a global scale. In September 2019, millions of people, mostly students and young people, participated in a week-long series of strikes and demonstrations, inspired by what Thunberg had begun by herself just over a year before. Their demands echoed Thunberg’s initial challenge to the Swedish government, to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C over pre-industrial levels. A landmark report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October 2018 warned that carbon emissions would need to be cut by 45% by 2030 to reach this target; more than two years later, consensus has built that 2020 is our last, best chance to save the planet.
“Something that everyone can recognize in themselves”
It’s an alarm bell Thunberg has been sounding for the past two years. While individual choices, like avoiding air travel, are important, Thunberg stresses that bigger change is needed; change that comes from a radically different approach to the climate crisis by world leaders and governments. Grossman followed Thunberg as she traveled around Europe, speaking with French President Emmanuel Macron and at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. But he also was intentional about showing her writing and practicing her speeches to make sure all the information was accurate. “Yes, there are these big moments that she experienced, but at the same time, the preparations for those moments were very small ones, something that everyone can recognize in themselves,” says Grossman.
Along with the very big stages she’s occupied, Grossman shows the personal pressures that come with Thunberg’s activism, and the weight of the world’s expectation and attention on her teenage shoulders. Thunberg’s family has received death threats, the hordes of cameras and media attention are overwhelming at times, and one scene shows her father, Svante, attending first aid training in case it’s required during their travels. And while the safety concerns are real, the teenager herself is determined to continue her activism based on her principles. “I am honestly not scared,” Thunberg narrates. “Because I am more worried about what would happen if I didn’t do this.”
The documentary culminates with Thunberg arriving in New York City and speaking at the U.N. in September 2019 after sailing across the Atlantic on a zero-carbon racing boat, battling tough conditions and homesickness, showing how difficult it is to live and travel sustainably today. The film offers a stirring reminder, as Thunberg herself says, that no one is too small to make a difference, and with the world still not on track to meeting the targets outlined in the Paris climate agreements, there’s still much more to be done.
I caught up with Thunberg and her father Svante in Lisbon in December 2019, seven months after that trip from London to Stockholm, meeting them on their arrival along with crowds of people celebrating their return from the U.S. back to Europe via catamaran. As we traveled in an electric vehicle to the location where Thunberg would be photographed for TIME’s Person of the Year cover image, both father and daughter reminisced about their trip, interrupting each other and interjecting to make sure they included all the details of their travels. They told me about the school strikes and other youth organizers they had met across the U.S. and Canada, the national parks they visited and their sadness at witnessing the devastation of the wildfires in California. They seemed relieved to be back in Europe, and Thunberg spoke of looking forward to seeing her mother, sister and beloved dogs again in time for Christmas. It was a quiet moment, a reminder that despite her global status, she is still an ordinary teenager. “I’m not proud of anything because I have not accomplished anything, I have not done anything,” she said, typically understated. “I have just acted on my conscience and done what everyone should be doing.”