Interview with Gregory Greene, Documentary Filmmaker

Gregory Greene is a documentary filmmaker based in Toronto, who directed "The End of Suburbia" and "Escape from Suburbia". (Interview transcribed by Najam Tirmizi).

Hassan Masum: What motivates you personally to spend your time making films?

Gregory Greene: When we first started doing “The End of Suburbia” back in May 2003, I lacked a focus. I’d been shooting travel shows and documentaries on a variety of different subjects, but I always felt that I hadn’t found my true path. When we first started doing “The End of Suburbia”, I really felt it resonate.

I had always been into ecology since I was in university, but peak oil brought all of these things into sharper focus, and actually gave us a timeline, and a real sense of immediacy that, at least for me, climate change as a motivator never really did. It does for other people, but never really did for me. It sort of got lost in a bunch of different issues, and mixed around.

And the fact that we were the first film to start exploring peak oil in any depth - being involved in that first iteration of it made me more interested, and kept bringing me in deeper and deeper. So my motivation is just a constant fascination with going deeper, and trying to figure out how we’re going to get through it.

HM: Now, a lot of people have these ideas in their mind, but few people actually make the step from thought to action. So what actually made you take action and make the movies?

GG: Well, the first one... I mean, it just happened. The first documentary just happened. I collaborated with another fellow who is an editor, I was a director-cameraman, and so we just came together and we did it. It took about a year, and we were looking for a producer and we were looking for a broadcaster, and everybody kept saying to us, “What’s the answer? You’ve presented the problem; what’s the answer?” We kept saying, “Well, there is no answer!” I mean, there’s different answers, but there’s no one answer.

We stayed very independent. And I think being independent kept it fresh for us, and keeping it fresh keeps you motivated to go on to the next documentary, because you haven’t been trampled down by executive producers, or by bureaucrats, or whatever. So having the freedom to keep exploring and going in the direction you want to go kept motivating us to do the first film, and the second film, and now the third film.

HM: What has your biggest challenge been?

GG: The biggest challenge for me has been to keep positively focused in the moments of greatest need - mostly financial. Lacking the resources to do all the different things you need to do to make a large documentary. It sounds cliché, but it really is the biggest hurdle for us. I’ve got lots of energy and lots of ideas and I just want to keep going and going and going, and you keep hitting these walls, where you just don’t have the resources to do it. So, yeah, I guess the answer to that must be money. [Laughs.]

HM: [Laughs.] Like so many of us.

GG: Yeah, there’s no difference between me, in that sense, and just about anybody else who’s trying to do this stuff.

HM: What are your thoughts on the explosion of documentary-like short videos online these days? I’m thinking of things like "The Story of Stuff" and so forth. Those have had huge reach, in the range of millions in some cases. Obviously the cost is much less. So, is there a route there to help people overcome the cost barrier?

GG: Yeah, I think making short docs and short little clips is both more cost-effective, and in the age of ADD, it’s where people’s attention spans are. We’re actually basing our online component for the new project on short clips, but we’re going to be mounting it in an open source anybody can go onto it, download the clips, or edit them together on our site. So we’re going to be able to create a site for mostly young people to create their own short videos, based on our media and media that other people upload.

HM: Choose-your-own-story kind of thing.

GG: Create your own story!

HM: Fantastic! What kind of options are there for people to take action based on your film? In other words, in the ideal case, what would you most want people to do after watching your film?

GG: I think right now, the most ideal thing watching any of the first two films would be to join a transition town group. Transition town groups are just growing so quickly - I’m not sure what the secrets of their success are, but I’m going to be exploring that, so I could hopefully answer that in the next film. But I think getting involved in the transition town movement, and bringing in new people - especially people who don’t identify traditionally with the green movement.

HM: What has the experience of meeting all of these people who are front-runners or pioneers or experimenters been like at a personal level?

GG: At a certain point, when I was getting the third documentary started, I realized that somehow over the last six years I’d met, not everybody, but almost everybody - and people that I hadn’t met yet, there were people eager to introduce me to those people. So that was quite a momentary revelation, and that’s hugely exciting, and inspiring.

HM: One content question: If you think about the film itself, there are a lot of local-scale ideas in there, things like food gardens and so forth. There’s also some degree of discussion of larger-scale issues; things like economic resilience, tax shifts, and so forth. What do you see as being the key actions required to take the local ideas to scale?

GG: This is the subject of our third film, “Resilient City”. It’s to take all of these very small, quaint, bucolic ideas and see if we can create a new sort of urban avant-garde with that, that can help start to prepare cities for the effects of resource depletion, and climate change, and the real elephant in the room is urban migration, in the next few years.

I think two billion people are set to move into cities in the next thirty-odd years. Can we create waste systems that are closed-loop, and don’t damage our bio-region? Can cities and bio-regions grow a majority of their own food? Can we create distributed energy, so that when parts of the grid go down like they did in 2003, we can keep the lights on, and keep things powered up? Can we create transit-oriented development in our cities fast enough to deal with the population influx and again, the concomitant decline in resources?

HM: If you actually plan to talk about entire cities making these changes, you are obviously going to have to build coalitions of quite diverse partners. Diverse in all kinds of ways. Ethnically, diverse class-wise, economically and so forth, so... Let me just push you a little bit, because to make a movie, and have people come to the movie, and talk about it afterwards, that’s an easy step. How will you personally become part of the coalition that actually pushes people to make change, or acquires actual investment to build change?

GG: This is a really weird thing that happened to me after we released “The End of Suburbia”. It became the best-selling Canadian independent documentary ever. Two guys in a basement spent eight thousand dollars to make the doc, and...

HM: Eight thousand dollars!

GG: Eight thousand bucks.

HM: Wow.

GG: It was more by the end of the time, but the actual cash to make the documentary initially was eight thousand dollars. We were funded by Visa and Mastercard, as we’d joke about it.

I used that success of our first documentary. It started to open up networks, which is what we used to shoot “Escape from Suburbia”, and create discussions or participate in discussions around the media that we’d created. We want to do the same with the third film, but we want to do it a bit more proactively. We want to use the promise of us shooting a documentary on transition towns to start more transition towns, because everybody wants to be on TV. [Laughs.]

So the prospect of actually being in the official story of this activist movement that is becoming global very, very quickly, and being in the middle of that by virtue of the fact that we’ve created the documentaries that have really helped that movement to grow - we hope to push it. We hope to actually help set the agenda a bit.

For me, it’s sort of reaching out into parts of the community that white, middle-class green people aren’t thinking about enough. We have to think about social justice. We have to think about economic justice. And I know green people think about that all the time, but when I point out at a lot of green meetings that “Everybody is white, middle-class, and has anybody noticed that?”, everybody looks around and they’re all kind of surprised, in a pleasant way, but... that and a few other things that I hope we can influence in not only the distribution of our documentary, but in the creation and the telling of that story.

In Toronto, I pushed a couple of people that I know, talking about the transition town movement, and now they’re starting a transition town. I started talking with friends of mine in Ohio and said I was interested in shooting a documentary, and now each of those friends are with a bunch of other people, starting transition groups in Ohio. So I’m in a really privileged place of being in the middle of a lot of the really influential people in the movement, if you want to call it that. I want to keep pushing those people to start transition groups.

I think that’s not a direct answer to your question, because that’s still the easy part, and still part of the making of our own documentaries about this. I think the tough part is going to be when... At least for me, over the next few years involved in transition groups, it’s to try to bring people together and keep them together.

The one thing I learned after “Escape from Suburbia” is that the democratic movement is by nature democratic, so it’s very fractious, and people don’t listen to each other very well sometimes. So I hope I can rise to that challenge of being a bit of a diplomat - helping people to hear each other, and listen to each other, and work together. And I think being a media worker, it’s easier, because I’m not trying to set any particular agenda, or I’m not seen as doing that. I’m seen as a storyteller, telling their story. I don’t know if people put more faith in me that way or trust me more, but it’s a privileged position that can be used to help people succeed and keep groups together, and...

HM: It sounds like you’re acting as a real catalyst.

GG: That’s the word. I hope that that’s exactly what we do. Our documentaries have acted as a catalyst, and no one’s been more surprised at how that panned out than we are. We never thought that this would become what it’s become.

Yeah, I hope with the third film we could be a catalyst on a global level, and reach out beyond the sort of green, white, middle-class groups and start to bring more people in - because that’s the story we want to tell.

HM: Greg, thanks so much!

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