Ariela Barer Dares to Dream

Her new film, "How to Blow Up a Pipeline," is a grimy, thrilling beam of hope

by Sarah Leonard

Photos by Elizabeth Wirija

A girl with short black hair, in a pink knitted belly shirt and mini skirt leans on a lamppost with closed eyes

What is violence? The death of millions by rising tides, temperatures, and droughts, or the destruction of a big metal tube? In 2020, Andreas Malm’s surprise hit book How to Blow Up a Pipeline made the case that since elites were not listening to our clamoring for real climate action, we should destroy the infrastructure of our imminent doom in acts of self-defense.

Not long after the book’s publication, young actor and writer Ariela Barer and her collaborators — director Daniel Goldhaber and producer Jordan Sjol — were holed up, unable to proceed with their regular film plans amid the pandemic. They read the book in a state of political hopelessness and decided to turn the manifesto into a narrative film with the same title. If Malm had made the case that movements needed to reskill themselves with a wider range of tactics, the slow-burning, low-key sexy, environmental thriller implies that we need new art to imagine using them. 

While plenty of people have noted we’re inundated with Law and Order-style copaganda, remember what’s on the other side of that coin: finger-wagging films about activist efforts that fall apart due to ego, extreme idealism, incompetence, or schisms. The group in Pipeline includes people from many of the populations with reason to hate pipelines, from Indigenous people whose land is being destroyed to white anti-corporate punks to poor people of color who are sick from growing up around poisonous refineries. “And I like the idea,” Barer told me thoughtfully, “of in the end saying, there can be ways for us to use these privileges and these different backgrounds to come together to outsmart the enemy.”

“I myself am not on the front lines of a movement just because I made a movie,” Barer said, a point she emphasized throughout our conversation. “I stand behind the film, and I stand behind my relationship to activists,” with whom she has been in deep conversation throughout the making of the film. “It’s weird how public figures are asked to be experts on everything while activists will spend their whole life dedicated to one subject [and not be asked].”

I think about this while I’m talking with her, a brilliant young artist eager to redirect questions about strategy back toward organizers (see our report in this issue on Stop Cop City, for which the Pipeline team recently did a fundraiser). At the same time, she has created a piece of work that obviously contributes to the imaginative infrastructure we need to tackle a near-impossible challenge. I recommend the film to everyone because you’ll be rapt while trembling fingers set wires, the saboteurs lie in the red dirt, and the FBI circles in dark cars. And because you might walk out thinking, hey, we’ve got options.

A girl in pink knitted belly shirt and mini skirt poses with her head turned toward the camera

Sarah Leonard I think Malm’s book was so popular because it came out during the pandemic, when everyone was feeling extremely powerless, and here was a book about taking action. I know you’ve mentioned feeling that way. I’m curious whether the process of making the movie changed how you felt.

Ariela Barer Yeah, completely. I felt so hopeless. I had been a part of all these movements; I was watching all these brilliant people putting their bodies on the line and doing everything they could. And it just felt like the arm of the state was so strong, like change wasn’t happening. Definitely not on the scale that people needed it. And then there was the increased risk of sickness and I felt so helpless. I didn’t know what the way forward was. And this book gives you a lot of hope when you read it.

When we approached Andreas [Malm] with it, he sent us all of the dissenting opinions that he had read. He put us in touch with people who completely disagreed with him. And it was through those conversations with people who agreed and disagreed and were out there doing the real work, asking them how this movie could help their movement, asking how we could contribute something meaningful, that I left that process feeling so hopeful. Now, I’m firmly anti-doomism. I think that’s too convenient, to throw our hands up and say it’s over — which I was on the brink of doing before making the film.

SL Are there specific instances from your involvement in social movements where you thought, I’m here at this thing and everyone’s doing everything right, and yet it doesn’t matter?

AB I want to make sure to say that the movement has to have an ecosystem of tactics working all at once. I don’t want to say anyone who’s out there is doing something wrong. I respect and love and stand by everyone I’ve worked with.

SL That makes sense.

AB I remember the Black Lives Matter protests in 2014. I was like 15 years old or something. I had taken the train to downtown LA, and didn’t tell my parents I was going. I remember I was walking with an old woman in her eighties, and she was so, so happy to see people caring. She  was struggling to walk, but she was getting there. And she felt like people finally cared about something she had been fighting for her whole life. We were linking arms and chanting, and the police slowly started closing in on us. And, you know, I was a kid, and I was scared. I went up to one of the cops and was like, “Oh, I’m just walking by. Like, my mom’s gonna pick me up.” They wouldn’t let us leave. They did not buy it, they would not listen to us. It got so tense. And I remember, at the last minute, as they were closing in, I found one opening and bolted and later I saw how violent it got the second I left. I felt so guilty for leaving, but I was 15 and terrified and I think about that all the time — the cops didn’t see us as people. They had trapped us so they could enact violence. I just couldn’t stop thinking about that woman, and that was why I felt like I had to keep coming back and showing up from 2014 on. That was my first real moment of radicalization in the streets.

Then, around 2017, there was the Dakota Access Pipeline stuff. I was working with the Divest LA movement, showing up every day and really, really fighting for it and really believing in it. I canceled my credit cards. I joined a credit union. I thought this would change the world and then the pipeline got built and I couldn’t fucking believe it. The people who were running the campaign in LA had been on the front lines in North Dakota and were telling us their stories and it was horrifying. They were the most beautiful, intelligent people, and they were just so thoughtful about how to go about everything and the pipeline just got built. It was like we were screaming into nothing.

SL Sometimes it seems like the best way to feel some hope is to try to get one concrete thing done with a group of people. And I know you don’t consider the film to be activism, but you did get a group of people together and, in my opinion, you made a contribution to the climate movement. 

AB Of course, making the movie is a very personal win for me as someone who has always wanted to make movies. Something I think about a lot in terms of privilege and taking up space is: I’m already in this industry, how can I open doors within my field? One of the most inspiring things was just the number of people on the set reading the book, like actors who had never engaged with these ideas before. I’ve never had conversations like that on a set. And I feel like that is where the movie can be most effective, if it can bring people to this conversation that weren’t there before. That’s all I can ask for.

SL The book seems radical at first glance, but it’s also persuasive precisely because it makes the simple argument that direct action has always played a role in political change.

AB Absolutely — it’s just undoing the sanitization of these movements. It doesn’t help us to erase history and we have to talk about the messy parts of it too. I think the misconception that gets people really riled up is the idea that we’re saying this is the only way forward. When people think some Hollywood writers came on in and are telling them what to do with their lives, it makes sense that someone would be annoyed by that. I would be annoyed by that.

A girl in pink knitted belly shirt and mini skirt poses with her hands holding her face and smoke around the image

SL I saw a headline that was something like, “Ariela Barer wants you to blow up a pipeline.” And another one that said, “Ariela Barer doesn’t actually want you to blow up a pipeline.” I wonder which you prefer.

AB The wording was “Ariela will teach you how to blow up a pipeline.” And then the other one was, “Ariela doesn’t actually want you to blow up a pipeline.” And I’m like, you know what? Both of those are true.

SL [Laughs] Ariela doesn’t want you to live in a world in which you have to blow up a pipeline.

AB That’s the truth of it.

SL I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the aesthetic choices in the film, and how they affect the politics.

AB  I haven’t seen many movies in our current film ecosystem that let the left be radical without making them villains or without so much infighting that they fall apart. It is totally worth tackling ideas of ego in leadership and stuff like that; I think Night Moves [a 2013 film about eco-sabotage] does that beautifully. But without the existence of aspirational, kind of fantasy, lefty movies, where do we look to, on a mass scale, just to get excited? Why can’t we go to a movie and be riled up about climate action?

In our film, they pulled it off. The heist worked. I wanted Ocean’s 11 for climate radicalism. And it’s fun. Joy and fun, and celebration are necessary parts of keeping a movement alive. The movie also taps into an anger that is real and I think that’s necessary too. But on the day that we blew up those pipelines, that was a feeling I cannot even fully express — the most cathartic, intense emotional release I’ve ever experienced in my life. And I do think the movie effectively gets that feeling across and that is worth something.

I didn’t answer your original question about the aesthetics, but that was the underlying idea and that kind of led into everything, including how we shot the film. When we were looking at DPs [directors of photography, or cinematographers], I got really excited about Tehillah [de Castro]’s work because she primarily works with 16mm film and it’s so inviting and soft and romantic. And I think like when you’re working with bombs, it’s really easy to make it scary and alienating and overly masculine. We took a very different approach to how we look at these characters and their bomb-making and explosions. It’s on a very hazy, soft 16mm.

SL It was such a contrast for me with something like Romain Gavras’s Athena, which is about an explosive uprising against police brutality in a French banlieue, and creates striking images of resistance but is very masculine and very aggressive throughout, and formatted as a tragedy.

AB Right. Literally a Greek tragedy. The opening 12 minutes are some of the best I’ve seen in any movie recently. I love that these movies exist together in conversation and I think that there’s merit to both of them.

SL You mentioned in an interview that people literally told you, “We can’t put out your film, there are oil companies backing us.”

AB Just funded by oil money.

SL So what conditions are the conditions that would allow for more movies like this to be made?

AB I personally hope there’s a new New Wave movement. I hope indie movies come back in a big way. The climate is so similar to what led to the New Wave movement [in the late 1950s], a sort of exhaustion with adaptations and unoriginal scripts, and now you have Martin Scorsese coming out and saying, “I’m sick of Marvel,” et cetera. I would love to see legitimately cheap ass movies getting made. My dream would be to make a $100,000 movie right now, that would rock. I hope that it becomes a much more accessible medium to people. Ultimately the thing about filmmaking that is so special is how communal it is. It’s people getting together. And I want people to be fairly compensated. I want people to make their livelihoods from it. And also I hope it becomes more accessible for people to just pick up cameras and do it themselves. New Wave movies are stunning and they weren’t that expensive to make. I wonder what a new New Wave movement could look like and I’ve been saying it to everyone ’cause I hope it happens.

SL It starts here.

AB It starts here.

A girl with short black hair, in a pink knitted belly shirt and mini skirt poses with her hands above her head

SL I was thinking, while watching this film, of something Toni Morrison said, that evil always comes into books and films wearing a top hat and twirling a cane; it’s always sexy. And good is harder to make sexy. That’s something you guys clearly worked against — how did you think about that?

AB We actually met with a French activist who talked about how the movement in France had been kind of rekindled because a bunch of young sexy people joined. He was like, make the movie sexy. And we thought, okay, if you insist. We just cast a lot of really cool people. The camera doesn’t leer at anyone. But there is something about them being both so human and so good at what they’re doing — that confidence. You’re watching these people be smart and good at something and so human; you’re not watching a superhero do it. That’s so unattainable. 

SL The film ends with a declaration that direct action is a form of self-defense. It strikes me that this is a very good description of what’s going on at the Cop City protest in Atlanta. Have you been following it?

AB We just did a fundraiser for them, yeah. God, it’s horrific. The activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán [also known as “Tortuguita”] was shot by police and it’s been proven that they had their hands up. People are being charged with terrorism with no evidence other than just having dirt on their shoes. Are you kidding? If  those charges are already happening for things that are not terrorism, what do we do? How do people go forward? Activists have their hands tied right now.

Some of the criticism of Andreas’s book said, you’re not really taking into consideration that American activists can’t go that far [because of the threat of harsh punishment]. But on the other hand, if not going that far already gets these consequences, what is there to lose? That’s a dangerous quote, but it’s true.

SL I think it’s actually very valid in the sense that it’s highlighting that this system is leaving people no choice.

AB There are a couple of recurring gotcha tweets and Letterbox lines that people keep using and one of them is “how to get yourself arrested” or “how to get yourself in jail.”

SL That possibility is in the film.

AB  Yeah, my character goes to jail. But do you know how many people got arrested just for showing up to a protest and not doing any property destruction? Like, what can we do?

SL I think that’s why it’s important that the film also shows a bunch of them getting away with it.

AB Yes, and yet there’s so much sacrifice. You have to go into it knowing that people die. People get hurt. It is scary. Xochitl couldn’t be so charming that people come on board because of her charm. She had to be difficult and people had to make the choice to be there. I really cared about this, making the film aspirational and idealized while also letting people know that there are consequences and you have to go into it knowing that.

SL What was behind your choice not to show a villain in the film, a person?

AB We talked about a version of it where there is an oil executive. But I think pinning it on one person does a bit of a disservice. In that last conversation between Xochitl and Alicia, they know blowing up this one pipeline doesn’t fix everything. There’s no silver bullet to fix climate change. This only works if people keep going and keep fucking up the financial systems that uphold this thing.

SL Rolling Stone uncovered FBI alerts warning of a possible uptick in pipeline attacks following the release of the film. It made me think again about Ocean’s 11 — when one of those movies comes out, do they put out an extra check on casinos? There are so many films out there glorifying violence for no reason at all.

AB Yeah, these movies have existed forever and is there an uptick in bank robberies after? No. The goal of this movie was to provide cultural context for why people would do this, because there are activists doing sabotage.

SL I want to get at the idea of property destruction and what constitutes violence, and how this has changed over time. In the 1960s, activists blew up mailboxes constantly without hurting people. They hijacked planes all the time, and while no one wanted to be on a hijacked plane, they weren’t being hijacked to kill people. They were flown to Cuba or Algeria by people who wanted money or asylum or whatever. There was a really different understanding of what constituted violence and what was a flashy political action.

AB What is our definition of violence when destroying capital is considered violence? Our characters very specifically go out of their way to make sure no person is hurt. But we’re calling this violence when the only thing that these characters actually physically destroyed or attacked was a machine.

SL In Ocean’s 11 they blow up a lot of stuff.

AB It’s justified because George Clooney’s hot and so is Julia Roberts.

SL But you guys are hot!

AB So many heist movies are about people destroying property to redistribute wealth to some extent, even if it’s purely selfish. There are so many bank heist movies where that is the central idea: righteous anger from people feeling like the system has robbed them and they commit a crime and property destruction to take back their wealth and agency. But because they aren’t explicitly unpacking those ideas, it’s like not really discussed in the same way [our film is].

SL And the redistribution is to like six people.

AB The more selfish it is, the more it’s allowed to be glamorized [laughs].

SL  It’s not a systemic threat! How did you form the crew of characters?

AB One of the first things we very directly addressed was the question of whiteness and privilege in the climate movement. And we had to start with the writing team. It is me, Daniel [Goldhaber], and Jordan [Sjol] — two white men and a brown person. If we wanted to write from our perspective, this probably would be a story about white entitlement in this movement. But very quickly we were like, that’s been done. Personally for me, as a non-white actor I have been excluded from so many narratives I care so much about because the people who are making the movies are white people and they want to write from their perspective. Sure, fine, but at a certain point, it’s this endless cycle of people not getting in the door because of this. 

I think white people really can write for people of color, and I would rather we write the most interesting story with the people who would be the most affected and involved with this. We just have to do the work to find consultants and credit them and compensate them. Danny and Jordan were immediately on board with that. And then we found once we started asking around that all of these people in these stories existed, with, like, no more than one degree of separation from us already.

We had this incredible consultant for a lot of the Indigenous storylines, named Ajuawak Kapashesit. He is an activist and a very talented writer and actor. He really pushed for the idea that the native or Indigenous experience is not a monolith. 

SL Often, the Indigenous person becomes the personification of some idea of a “pure” relationship with  nature.

AB Yeah, that’s just so old and dishonest at a certain point. When we got in touch with Forrest [Goodluck, who plays Michael, an Indigenous member of the collective], we really let him take Michael away in the direction he wanted. He wanted him to be a really thorny, really angry character. And he’s brilliant in the movie because of that.

We wanted to cast people who had experiences that they could bring to the movie, but also to let actors act. Actors who can play [roles] outside of their immediate selves. A lot of the actors were like, “This is the first time I’m playing this version of myself.” We talked about that in the writing process, when we were adjusting characters for whoever was there. We were like, what have you not done yet that you want to? What do you feel best about doing?

SL What did you get to do that you felt like you hadn’t before?

AB For me it was like being both the leader and such a thorny character who is also given the credit of having the intellect to do this. I got to get away with being a quieter, internally-about-to-combust person with the weight of all of it on their shoulders. And it was just a nice responsibility to be given that. I don’t feel like I’d really gotten something like that before.

SL What comes next?

AB A lot more development stuff. I’m writing, and I have a couple of projects, although right now with the [Writer’s Guild of America] strike obviously I’m taking a step back. I’m pro-union, pro strike. But focusing a lot on writing as well as acting. I love it all. I love movies and I think this also put a real pep in my step moving forward.

SL It seems like a good place to be in, much better than where you started!

AB So much better from where I started.

Sarah Leonard is the editor-in-chief of Lux.

Styling by Sara Lukaszewski
Make-up by William Scott, The Wall Group
1st photo assistant: Jacob Cooper
2nd photo assistant: Shadi Ojelade
Knit set by Bulan New York
Jewelry by Bond Hardware