The Great Green Wall: Climate Change, Conflict and Community Resilience

The Great Green Wall is a documentary film that follows a journey along the Great Green Wall – an ambitious plan to grow a 8000km ‘wall’ of vegetation across the Sahel, from Senegal in West Africa, to Djibouti in the East. The film follows Malian musician and activist Inna Modja as she meets with communities across the region, grappling not only with the costs of climate change and desertification, but the associated costs of conflict and insecurity.

The film is being shown in Australia as part of the Transitions Film Festival, premiering in Melbourne on 20 February 2020. Green Agenda co-editor, Felicity Gray, spoke to the film’s director, Jared Scott, about the rationale behind the film, the role of arts and music in telling political and environmental stories, and providing a platform for people to share their stories of climate change and its effects.

Green Agenda has previously spoken to Jared about his films The Age of Consequences, on the nexus between climate change and conflict, and Requiem for the American Dream, featuring Noam Chomsky on wealth concentration and power. Jared is an Emmy nominated writer/director and New York Times bestselling author.

Inna Modja, Malian musician and activist, who narrates and performs throughout the film.

[This transcript has been edited]

Felicity Gray: I began watching the film anticipating an environmental documentary on desertification. It’s obviously much more than that. Can you can you tell us a little bit about the film and what was the impetus behind it? And why focus on the Great Green Wall?

Jared Scott: Anytime you get together with a team on a film, it takes a whole orchestra. It influences the approach, and I think when we got together on this I was actually brought on board after my colleagues had already been talking with Inna Modja, our protagonist, about using music to tell this story. We had the Great Green Wall, we had desertification, we had music. And we wanted to tell that story. Everyone loves the road trip. Let’s do a road trip. Let’s record an album. Let’s explore an issue in each country. I knew from the start we didn’t want to make a technical film, although people always have a lot of technical questions for me afterwards. We decided to embrace music, to embrace this journey, to embrace Inna and to really use music as a vehicle.

I always look at it as Buena Vista Social Club meets the Years of Living Dangerously. I think that a lot of this goes back to my past. The last film I did was called The Age of Consequences, which was about climate change through the lens of security. Before that, I did a film with Noam Chomsky about inequality, and the two films prior to that were both climate films for the climate movement, about the need for a movement, about marching about building movements, social action. As a filmmaker and a storyteller, you know, what you’ve done previously influences how you’re going to tackle some new subject. You have to try to go out there find creative ways to tell new stories, and I think this is one of them. This is the most important pressing issue of the day. The responsibilities for us as storytellers is trying to figure out the different ways to communicate it. And it can’t all just be you know, the sky is falling. I hope it I hope it resonates with audiences.

Felicity Gray: Yes, I was going to say that music felt like a protagonist in the film, or that the film was almost like a musical documentary. Can you talk more about the collaboration with Inna Modja, and the importance of music to telling the story?

Jared Scott: With Inna, I think I just had to listen and go, okay – ‘this is what I hear you saying, what’s important to you?’ Let me just help give it form. Let me help lend my craft to what it is that I’m hearing. The job oftentimes as a documentarian is to take the messy stuff of life and turn it into a life story, right? So I did want this to be a story told by Africans, without an outsider coming in. It needed to be led by an African protagonist and told by Africans. I really wanted to just be there to try to get Inna Modja to feel comfortable to explore these places in her homeland.

I really wanted to make sure that I was doing justice to the people on the ground, and to guide that but not try to insert my worldview or my perspective. I go through phases – sometimes I’m optimistic and sometimes I’m wildly pessimistic. I like challenging myself, I like this argument within myself about climate change, because I do feel like it is the most wicked problems of our time. I realized with people here in New York, for example, where I’m based, is that most people are pessimists. It’s almost like they have the luxury to be a pessimist to say “oh, well, you know, we’re going to hell in a handbasket anyway”. It’s a massive problem. And our emissions are just going up. Australia is on fire.

But what I realized on the frontlines is that people, especially in the Sahel, they didn’t seem to have that luxury of pessimism. They had to be optimistic. It’s almost like they felt like “it’s much more tangible for me, and I just need to be positive.” We were going to make a film about resilience. And really it’s the people who are resilient. And without the people’s resilience, you can’t have these resilient structures, whether it’s mitigation or adaptation efforts, like the Great Green Wall or solar farms. It really comes down to the people.

Felicity: One of the things that struck me was that a huge part of re-greening in the Sahel has been through farmers using traditional agricultural practices. Can you talk more about how that local ownership has shaped the transformations of the Great Green Wall?

Jared: I think that we need to think about planting trees, but the Great Green Wall is much more than that. It’s not just about planting trees, it’s about you know, re-greening, it’s about development, it’s about any kind of measure that’s going to shift into a more broader sense of developing ecosystems and livelihoods and all the rest. So it’s definitely much more than planting trees. It’s a patchwork, as we say, in the film, a “mosaic” of a number of different re-greening and development issues.

If you can embrace community traditions and community standards, that’s just the way to do it. It’s so important to embrace the local communities on every level. So I do hope that the international organizations that are largely funding this bigger initiative, continue to empower local people. You know, at the same time, too, we can’t just plant trees as a way out of climate change. They are vastly important to our ecosystem, to health, to biodiversity, to carbon sequestration. Yet, clearly, it doesn’t get us off the hook for transitioning off fossil fuels almost completely by 2050 and beyond. We can’t just plant trees to get out of this problem. We need to do so many different things on so many different levels. But, as a low cost, easily scalable option, we should embrace local people and try to help them lead this effort.

Felicity: I was also struck by the quote you mentioned before from Colonel Papa Sarr, who calls the wall “a mosaic of restored lands”. I was thinking about the idea of restoration and restorative justice, and what affects the wall is having in terms of restoring social and political bonds. And what role the film can play in shaping that restoration as well?

Jared: What every organizer hates to hear is that something is an awareness campaign. But I think that our job as filmmakers is to try to do just that, to create awareness around something. We want to get people’s attention, so the film’s message can be harnessed and used.

You can look at this as a classic case of climate justice, the whole idea of the Sahel and here we have people who have done the least to contribute to this problem, and they’re bearing the brunt of it. You can see that environmental racism on a number of levels. You know, you can even look at the wall unfavorably, to be honest, as a mechanism for European countries to fund something to keep people in.

I think that’s what Didier Awadi [a Senegalese musician featured in the film] is getting at. When he says, ‘people go to these international meetings, they talk about how do we prevent them from leaving?’ And he sees it as racism. I understand that dilemma. A lot of development initiatives are about providing livelihoods for people because migration is an issue. To go through Algeria, or Libya, it’s dangerous, it’s going to be a bad experience. So I understand why the IMO (International Migration Organization) and other people are saying, ‘Hey, don’t go, don’t go and we will try to do whatever we can.’

At the base level, I just want people to realize that this is a dynamic place. And it shouldn’t be just some sacrifice zone. The people that live there, they’re just like you and me, it’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They want self-actualization, they want a good life for their kids that’s better than their’s. And that’s what we should be coming together with as a human family to try to solve. Unfortunately, there’s so many, you know, other dynamics involved.

Felicity: Yes, I was struck at the end of the film when the UN Undersecretary General Monique Barbut says that “it’s not too ambitious, but what’s required is acts of political courage”. Having worked on this film and having engaged with these issues in relation to it, what do you see as opportunities that can be taken up by people to push for greater investment in in the Great Green Wall specifically, but also in tackling some of these broader issues that you’ve outlined?

Jared: Sometimes I feel much more hopeful, and sometimes, I feel… you know, the bureaucratic nightmare of some of these organizations, though there’s so much potential to do good. I don’t know how it’s going to play out. Usually, I guess the way that it’s supposed to work is that people are supposed to demand change, and governments are supposed to listen to the people. That politicians never lead, they follow. We have to force them to do it. And so I guess I have more faith in people. I have faith in these global movements that I hope that will just continue to grow more until the politicians actually heed these calls.

But as you know, we live in a world – whether it’s the economy, or the political cycle – but it’s very short term thinking. It’s really, really difficult for us to seem to have any kind of sense of long term thinking. You don’t get a lot of political points for thinking 10 years down the road, 20 years down the road. We need to increase the current pace 10 fold, if we are to get to two degrees Celsius warming. And scientists are saying this is a political number, no warming’s good.

I don’t have much faith in politics. I have way more faith in the people. And I just hope that through all these different movements, we realize we’re a part of the same movement. As it says in the film, eternal vigilance is really the price of fundamental change. And I think we all just need to be eternally vigilant. We need to wake up every and try to do this, knowing that it’s not looking good. It’s kind of bleak. But what do you know, what other option do we have? We have to think long term. If our politicians aren’t taking action, if our economy isn’t structured that way, we still have to push forward, because as Inna Modja says, we sow the seeds, so that other hands may harvest. And I hope that message resonates with people who watch the film.

Felicity: Before we finish, is there anything else you want to mention or impress upon us?

Jared: I just hope that people realize this is just one story. I think it’s a really important story. And I hope that people just realize that there’s so many more stories like this. And I think that the onus is on us in the filmmaking community, to try to go out and make more premium stories, to tell better stories around climate change, to help audiences fight back the fatigue. I know that people are fatigued by the the news cycle and by a stream of bad news. But I hope that people can find stories like this and it can empower them. You never know what’s going to empower someone to get involved. And each one of those stories provide different entry points for different people. I think we have got to keep telling them and I hope the audience will keep watching them.

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