Ariela Barer Is Sure We Can Fix the Climate Crisis

Photo: Stephanie Diani/B) Stephanie Diani 2023

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a heist film that lights a short fuse and ticks down the seconds. Shot in about three weeks for next to no money in New Mexico, the taut ecothriller, adapted from the nonfiction book of the same name by Andreas Malm, blasts past the mawkish and silly pitfalls of some recent climate storytelling with pure youthful energy and nerve. “When we were on set, it did feel like we were just kids and we had no adult supervision,” says the co-writer and star, Ariela Barer, 24. “There was really no one over, like, 35.”

Barer and her collaborators belong to the first generation that is experiencing the climate crisis as their lived reality rather than a far-off possibility — one they see unfolding on their feeds in real time. And yet the movie they made is so propulsive that it defies despair: “When you put a bunch of young people together who are fed up and who grew up fed up, like, it is a different type of story,” she says.

Barer, whose previous credits include the Saved by the Bell reboot and Hulu’s Marvel series Runaways, developed the film with her pandemic pod-mates, director Daniel Goldhaber (Cam) and producer Jordan Sjol, then in a Ph.D. program at Duke University. “It was at a time in lockdown before vaccines that Danny and Jordan and I were all just hanging out a lot. We were all very frustrated with our careers just because that was such a dead zone in the industry at the time,” she says. “But also it felt like all these movements in the world kept popping up and getting squashed. So we just felt so powerless and helpless, and Jordan had always had this idea of adapting a piece of academic text into a movie.”

Sjol suggested Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which argues in favor of sabotage as both a justified and practical activist strategy. But the film that emerged is more than a straightforward piece of propaganda. Barer injected her own moral qualms into the character of Alisha (Jayme Lawson), who is drawn into the plot out of love for her girlfriend (played by Sasha Lane) but worries that destroying infrastructure will ultimately endanger vulnerable people. “Alicia very much represented my own internal struggle as we wrote this movie, kind of the two sides of me that were like, ‘Well, someone has to do it. But why us? And then why not us? You know, how dare we? But how dare we not?’”

Who wouldn’t dare, according to Barer, is a big studio. The film is independently financed: “No one would meet with us. We were told a couple of times straight up, like, ‘Our studio will never fund this. We are funded by oil.’”

Is it true that you all have NSA files now? 
The bomb expert was actually the one who warned us, like, yeah, they probably have dinged this conversation because we’ve said all the words that would make someone flag you down. But then they would Google us and figure out in two seconds that we’re making a film.

But it does feel very real, and so suspenseful.   
Yeah, we knew we wanted it to be process driven. So we knew that that was actually a lot of the tension. I mean, working with explosives, period — it’s such a risk and such a danger that we knew we wanted that to all be there. And we also loved the idea of cutting away to these flashbacks to withhold right at the moment that someone wants that release.

You wrote the film and you also star as Xochitl, who is more or less the ringleader of this team of activists that comes together from all over the country, but it seems like you were careful not to make her too charismatic or even too sympathetic.
I thought that it would be borderline manipulative if people were coming into this because they were so charmed by a person versus so moved by the ideas.  

It’s interesting if you think about it in the context of how American culture covers social movements because we love a Che Guevara or a MLK figure and thinking that one person will be the hero and save everybody. 
Yes. Exactly. Don’t get me wrong, I love MLK! But when we got to the edit, I was like, Oh my God, I’m such a difficult person in this movie. But I think it ultimately makes the movie a lot more interesting and a lot better.
Because people often look for figureheads in movements, and the relationship between ego and a leader in something like this, like, who is the person who puts himself at the front of this movement? And why is that complicated, and why does that both help and also compromise movements at times?

That said, it’s easy for me to see a parallel between Xochitl’s life and yours in the sense that both of you departed from a certain script and decided to go out and do your own thing. Do you feel that? 
I do think this film feels radical because maybe we just put all of our raw selves into it. I wasn’t originally writing Xochitl for me to play her, but she was always a very personal character, and she kind of represented my personal disillusionment with systems of power and institutions that I’d once believed in. I once believed that I could change the system from inside. I think when I was a kid, I would tell people I wanted to be, like, an actor-singer-dancer-scientist-politician, you know. I volunteered for Obama in fifth grade.

Do you remember when you first became aware of the climate crisis? 
I was at Disneyland and I was 9. I think my sister explained to me what global warming is, and I started freaking out in line for this roller coaster. I remember at one point asking, “How long do you think we have?” And I think my dad turned to me and was like, “40 years.” I always kept that number in the back of my head that I’ll get to live to be 49.

Wow. Do you still feel that way? 
You know, I think before this movie, I didn’t see a way forward. It felt so hopeless. And now I’m completely sure we can fix this if we just take it into our own hands and make it happen. Because there are brilliant minds working on this already in all these departments. I would say follow @thegarbagequeen on TikTok. She always has her “Good Climate News of the Day” segment. I keep emailing her. She hasn’t answered.

Well, maybe she’ll see this. What is the message that you want people to take away from the film? 
At first, Danny kind of wanted to make a piece of propaganda, which scared the shit out of me because I was like, That has to be irresponsible to a degree.

I want people to meet the movie where it’s at and just bring people to the table with the discussion. Like, I hope people go pick up the book. Then I hope they get to be in physical space with people who also want to be discussing these ideas and discussing the climate movement. And if you do not want these things to happen, if you are anti-blowing-up-pipelines after seeing this movie, what next? Where do we go from here? Let’s actually start moving forward to a solution rather than just shooting down every idea.

According to Barer’s team, she and the filmmakers consulted an expert but decided of their own volition to leave out a few steps when filming the process of making explosives.
Ariela Barer Is Sure We Can Fix the Climate Crisis