PARIS — A day before the official opening of the UN climate summit, a young Canadian filmmaker named Slater Jewell-Kemker captured magic on the streets.
Police had banned public rallies following the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks, so activist organization Avaaz called on Parisians to instead lay down their shoes at Place de la République, a popular public square.
And they did — more than 40,000 dress shoes, high heels, flip flops, running shoes and winter boots, including pairs sent by Pope Francis and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, began arriving from every corner of town and beyond.
Jewell-Kemker, 23 and with feathery pink-dyed hair, let the camera roll. “It was a very peaceful show of solidarity for people who couldn’t march,” she said.
But the magic disappeared soon enough. What started as a peaceful assembly later that same day spiralled into violence after a smaller group of hooligans began throwing bottles and other items at police. Soon enough, the tear gas and batons came out.
It was a “bizarre” day, said Jewell-Kemker, not unlike her past seven years of shooting footage for her upcoming film An Inconvenient Youth. Scheduled for release next summer, the documentary chronicles the ups and downs of young people struggling to be heard amid the noise of international bureaucracy.
Jewell-Kemker grew up in L.A. but moved to Canada when she was 9. She currently lives on a 200-acre farm in Kawartha Lakes, Ont., with her mother and producer Wendy Jewell. Her love of nature and “feeling connected to the seasons” started young and to this day she’s a beekeeper who makes her own honey when not out gardening.
She began work on her documentary in 2008 after being invited to participate as a Canadian youth delegate at the G8’s Youth Summit for the Environment in Kobe, Japan.
“I was incredibly excited and naive,” she recalled. “I thought this would be a moment when our leaders are going to speak to our generation, but it ended up being a photo-op where all we did was walk onstage waving flags.”
The only on-camera interview she managed to snag was with then federal Conservative MP John Baird, who at the time was Canada’s environment minister. He told Jewell-Kemker that the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 was where “everything would happen.” It was then that she knew she had to go.
But Copenhagen turned out the stuff of crushed dreams. Young people who went there as optimists left in a depressive state.
“Myself, I got angry,” she said. “I mean, how could we as thinking human beings live with ourselves by telling island nations and countries like Nepal, which are truly facing the effects of climate change, that they have to wait. It was just insane.”
At the 2010 summit in Cancun, Mexico, the bar was set low and the mood going in was decidedly sombre. Youth delegates had lost hope in their leaders — and in the UN system itself — but for Jewell-Kemker and peers, it was also a chance to regroup and remember what the fight was about.
“It’s really about people, and our shared humanity and interconnectedness,” she said. “It’s about asking ourselves: Do we really want to be those people who are defined by narrow self-interest?”
Five years have gone by and Jewell-Kemker has been filming the drama every step of the way. She has attended every UN climate summit since Copenhagen and has travelled eight countries to capture the stories of fellow youth directly affected by climate change.
Paris is supposed to be the final leg of her journey. She arrived on Nov. 22 and will stay to the end, hoping like everyone that negotiators will emerge from final talks with a binding agreement that will lead to meaningful, positive change.
So far so good, she said — kind of. On the upside is the simple fact that Canada has switched from being obstructive to constructive. Unlike past years, the country has yet to win a Fossil of the Day award, which is reserved for the biggest climate laggards. She’s also impressed that Canada has four youth delegates that are part of the Canadian negotiating team.
As for criticism levied at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for not meeting with Canadian youth delegates during his 24-hour visit to Paris, Jewell-Kemker said people need to cut the him some slack. He did, after all, have only a short time to fit in meetings with U.S. and Russian leaders and the head of the United Nations. “He’s not actually trying to offend people,” she said, “he’s just trying to get his s--- together.”
Yet she’s less forgiving with Christiana Figueres, the UN’s top climate bureaucrat, who declined to meet with youth leaders after giving an opening keynote on Thursday — “Young and Future Generations Day” — despite assuring youth in her speech that they are part of the process and being heard.
How will this week end? Jewell-Kemker is not willing to guess. What she does know is that Paris, while it might mark a major milestone in climate action history, is not the beginning or the end of the story.
But at some point, when shooting a movie, you have to turn the camera off and work with what you have. Thanks to some funding through the World Bank’s Connect4Climate program, she’ll leave Paris with a lot of footage to edit and the goal of a summer wrap-up.
“The thing is, you’re following real life and real life is always changing,” she said. “I become a bit overwhelmed sometimes because I wonder if we’ll ever get the deal that we want.”