You'll find few films released this year dealing with more radical ideas than How To Blow Up A Pipeline – Contributing Writer Anahit Behrooz meets the film's star and co-writer Ariela Barer to chat disruption, terrorism and propaganda.
In 2021, the same year that the UN’s milestone COP26 revealed the failure of nations to live up to long-promised environmental pledges, ecology lecturer Andreas Malm proposed an alternative to what was fast feeling like an inevitability. How To Blow Up a Pipeline was provocative from its red-and-barbed-wire emblazoned cover alone, yet – in spite of its name – Malm’s book was less an instruction manual, more a quietly resolute manifesto on the necessity of direct and irrevocable action. Property destruction and sabotage, Malm explains, must be seen not only as a legitimate but as a fundamentally ethical recourse when faced with the creeping wreckage of the world.
Now, barely two years later, Malm’s daring argument has been adapted into a film that takes the politics of his work and spins them into a heart-pounding, twisting thriller. Following a group of young idealists who cluster together in the cold Texan scrub minutes away from an oil pipeline, this cinematic How To Blow Up a Pipeline proves itself just as radical and politically astute as its originator. Directed by Daniel Goldhaber and co-written alongside Jordan Sjol and Ariela Barer, who also stars as the furious and heartbroken activist Xochitl, How To Blow Up a Pipeline is a group endeavour in the most ideological ways: a testament to the political power of collectivity, both on and offscreen.
In a world where the wheels of climate disaster are fast turning, and where the derailing of a snooker game by Just Stop Oil activists takes up more of the news cycle than the oil industry itself, How To Blow Up a Pipeline demands us to consider what terrorism, in the face of ever-more terrorising structures, really means. We sat down with writer and star Ariela Barer to discuss the structures of heist cinema, depicting the granular mechanics of resistance, and making propaganda.
Girls on Tops: I’m really interested in what made you want to adapt Andreas Malm’s book, a nonfiction political treatise, into a narrative film?
Ariela Barer: Jordan [Sjol] is an academic, and he had always wanted to adapt an academic text into a movie – he was reading How To Blow Up a Pipeline for something else and sent it to Daniel [Goldhaber]. It was in the middle of a conversation about how badly we just wanted to make a movie with our friends, and it just snapped. He was like’ “How to Blow Up a Pipeline, that's a heist movie!” Andreas was very supportive of us reading any dissenting opinions. He would send us criticisms of his book and be like, “This is good, put this in,” which I thought was very cool.
I was really struck by the radical ways you subvert the traditional heist film – how did you want to play with or adapt the bounds of the genre?
There actually are a lot of very radical ideas in heist movies. Maybe not like Ocean's 11 – although I do think stealing from large corporations is not necessarily not a radical idea. There tend to be interesting ideas of wealth redistribution in these movies. We looked at A Man Escaped, or even Woman at War which has a heist-y type setup, in that you're following her committing acts of political sabotage and you're completely on her side. People going against the law, people going against structures of power – we played into these genre conventions instead of pushing against them.
The actual mechanics of this kind of disruption are so central to your interpretation. Some of the critiques of Malm’s book said it should have been called “Why To Blow Up a Pipeline”, but here you really focus on the how. What do you think showing the tactility of resistance can convey?
We loved the idea of a process-driven heist movie because it is the opposite of Why To Blow Up a Pipeline. We wanted to show how, because once you immerse the audience in the middle of an act like this, they are immediately on the side of the protagonist – literally, even if not ideologically. But when you put your protagonist in immediate danger, like when you watch Sasha Lane make a bomb looking so cool and you’re told it could explode in her face at any minute, you're like, “Oh my God, I hope it doesn't.” And then you're like, “Why am I feeling this way? Why do I understand what they're going for?”
People have left the movie being like, “I was shocked at how scared I was when the cop came in.” They’re like, “Why am I rooting [against] this cop just because of the way the movie functions?” You put people emotionally on side, before unpacking intellectually whether or not they actually are.
Each of the characters’ storylines intersects with broader issues of the American empire – whether that is healthcare, or the colonial project, or class. What was the process of bringing together and staying authentic to these different experiences?
This was actually one of our first conversations. Jordan and Daniel weren’t sure if it was right to speak to other [experiences], like should it be about whiteness and entitlement within the movement? But I just thought that it had been done, and as a non-white person who has been excluded from these narratives, I wanted to unpack the people most affected. We had to do our due diligence and talk with people, and properly credit and compensate those who lent their stories.
The Theo [Sasha Lane’s character] plotline is based on a friend of mine, who acted as a script consultant, and it was a beautiful experience getting to work with her. From there, Andreas started connecting us with different activists and we pieced together a collection of stories that made sense together. We were told by an activist that if you wanted to get away with something like this, these people shouldn't really know each other. They shouldn't have pre-existing relationships that can be traced. So it was really interesting to figure out where the makeup of the group came from.
There’s something so radical in how this collectivity becomes a tool for emancipation, even within a group who don’t know each other.
I think there's a very capitalist idea of hyper-individuality that is hurting our movements: the second we stop seeing ourselves as part of a community and part of a larger organism, it becomes impossible to do anything. It would be so convenient for capitalism for us to just completely be isolated and looking out for our own singular best interest.
It's also interesting that the antagonist in the face of this collectivity isn’t another human, it’s a corporation.
That's what Andreas sets up perfectly: his argument is that the enemy is the infrastructure. Morally, you can absolutely justify that destroying a piece of metal is fine. It's a piece of metal. It's not human life. How it will affect human life is definitely up for debate, but the act itself is not inherently evil. It's not kidnapping an oil executive, which I’m not calling an inherently evil act, but it is much more thorny and complicated.
It's a whole different film.
It's a whole different film. It's not my place to speak on that, it's not my domain, but it is an easier argument to say, “Destroy this metal pipeline,” versus, “Hurt a human person directly and immediately.”
These are such overtly radical ideas. So many people are categorising this film as agitprop – does this ring true for you? How do you see its relationship to propaganda?
We had that conversation pretty explicitly at the beginning. Daniel was angry and wanted to make propaganda, and then Andreas would send us dissenting opinions about why people would be afraid of that. There is an argument to be afraid – we do live in a police state in the United States, [and] the violence it would bring to communities is real and would affect people on a ground level. And yet, that doesn't mean I am in any way morally or theoretically against the idea of property destruction.
It is a fantasy, ultimately. The structure was to have an idealistically hopeful leftist movie, because in so many movies a leftist will be a total villain. They'll frame it as, “We get why they're mad, but we shouldn't do all that,” or it'll be about a leftist organisation that crumbles under the weight of ego. So we knew it was idealism, we knew this plan was not actually possible. It was more to get people inspired in a movement that is torn down every single day by the powerful allies we supposedly had. I wouldn't call it agitprop, but I also don't mind people calling it that. I was just focusing on inspiring even any feeling of possibility.
Do you think there is a difference between political art and propaganda?
I don't know if there is an inherent difference. The views of the filmmaker will always bleed through. I'm not interested in neutral political art – I feel everything is propaganda these days. You can't go to a superhero movie without seeing propaganda. So maybe it's that all movies are propaganda, only some are explicitly political.How To Blow Up A Pipeline is in UK cinemas now