Growing Up Together, with Impact

One film’s commitment to protecting youth constitutional rights to a stable climate, and the tools that make it possible

In 2018, director Christi Cooper and her film YOUTH v GOV joined The Redford Center community, and we’ve celebrated its incredible impact ever since.

YOUTH v GOV follows the story of America’s youth taking on the world’s most powerful government, filing a ground-breaking lawsuit against the U.S. government. They assert it has willfully acted over six decades to create the climate crisis, thus endangering their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. The Juliana plaintiffs, represented by the legal non-profit Our Children’s Trust, represent the diversity of America’s youth impacted by the climate crisis. If these young people are successful, they will not only make history, they will change the future.

To mark the launch of YOUTH v GOV’s educational and community distribution, Christi and Producer, Olivia Ahnemann, recently sat down with The Redford Center team to discuss the unique experience of documenting youth advocates at pivotal moments in their lives, the impact potential of diverse content forms, being a first-time feature director, and building community around the filmmaking process.

Setting the Stage

Christi: I think it’s really important for folks to understand that so far in the six and a half years of this case, every hearing has been a procedural hearing. That’s really a goal right now with the case is to be able to have this day in court — a scheduled 12 week long trial — where all of the plaintiffs can testify and all of the experts can present their evidence. It’s really important, I think, for the American people to have access to this information and for the courts to be able to rule on this based on the evidence. So that’s, that’s where the case is right now [February 2022].

It still feels like a hopeful moment for the case and there’s still a lot of opportunities. There’s also a lot of talk and a lot of rhetoric. We have not yet seen the action that we need.

Education for Action

YOUTH v GOV’s free educational curriculum and discussion guides are valuable resources to help teachers utilize film in the classroom. In one guide, students participate in a five-day research-based role play that introduces the landmark constitutional climate lawsuit Juliana v. U.S. Students are invited to discuss their fundamental rights to life, liberty, and property in the face of the climate crisis, and the role of the U.S courts and youth in addressing this issue.

They remind us that empowering students to act can take many forms. Students can write letters to local newspapers, design podcasts, plan school activities to raise student awareness, lobby local lawmakers, and volunteer in political campaigns. They can even join youth organizations that file amicus briefs to support cases like the Juliana lawsuit or they can join cases themselves. Students can learn about these issues and then find a way to make their own voices heard.

Subjects Who Grow

Christi: The time period that it took to create this film was incredibly special for building relationships with the plaintiffs, their families, and the legal team. From all of the mini court hearings and the ups and downs in the case, to getting to know the kids filming with them in their homes — it’s a huge, long journey. There wasn’t a lot of reality to what I was doing as a filmmaker in these personal spaces. Everyone knew ‘like Christi’s hovering around and following us and doing all these shots and wanting to be here and be there.’ But it was almost theoretical.

The moment that we had our private screening with the characters in the film — the plaintiffs, their families, and the legal team — it was the first time that they had seen the film. Experiencing their emotion of watching the film and seeing their lives played out, especially for the youth who, you know, over the course of these five years of filming with them really changed and grew, and like went through these, you know, not only like physical development changes, but also just as activists as, as voices for the movement. As kids growing up in this world. And we were able to capture that on camera — it was incredibly emotional.

They had no idea how to envision what we were putting together. They didn’t know a lot of the elements that were in there. I remember Jacob [a plaintiff] saying, ‘I had no idea you were doing this, this whole historical piece to the film.’ They felt like they learned something watching this story about their own case, their own story. As a filmmaker, it was so fulfilling, gratifying, and inspiring.

Shorts for Impact

Olivia: I think in a lot of cases, people hold up the feature film as kind of like the holy grail of what you want to make. Having worked on a lot of features and impact campaigns around them, shorter content is often more accessible in an impact setting than feature-length documentaries. Besides just the art form of telling a story in a shorter way, there is a different value to the impact it can have out in the world. We’re constantly asked to have a shorter version or clips of YOUTH v GOV. The way that people consume their content now — the devices they consume it, classroom work, etc — in those settings 20 minutes is a really beautiful amount of time for people to have a conversation around, to teach around. So I just feel like the value of shorter films is really big in the impact side of things.

Christi: I absolutely agree. I wish there were more platforms for shorts and that they were more valued for the work that they can do. Because I think it’s so much more approachable. From a funding perspective to the time that it takes to get them out there — you can do so much more with shorts. It’s part of the reason we have created 20+ short pieces that we’re going to use along with our impact campaign, precisely because those shorts have such a different life and a different purpose.

While the courts are important and we need to hold up that importance of our judicial system, there are also many other ways that everyone can get involved in holding our government accountable on climate change.

Someone Believes in Your Story

Christi: I have been amazingly blessed with this team that came in at a moment when people didn’t believe in this story and weren’t exactly sure where it was going. And as a first-time feature film director, there’s always, I think, some hesitancy around supporting a person who doesn’t have a track record. I just had some really stellar people who came onto my team and supported me.

Including The Redford Center who came on early in this process for me. And I think that that was a huge boost — meeting other people and just even having that confidence that someone believes in your story and they’re willing to help fund it and willing to put you into this small group of people that they believe in and, and want to support.

Everyone Can Get Involved

Christi: We really hope that this film inspires and empowers young people, in particular, to know that their voice matters and that they can be engaged and involved at so many different levels in shifting the needle and holding their governments accountable. When it comes to climate change, there are so many opportunities for youth to get involved. And there are so many ways that older people can support them in that work. We just really encourage people to continue talking about climate change — to make it a priority. Our website’s impact campaign has resources to get engaged and support young people across the country.

While the courts are important and we need to hold up that importance of our judicial system, there are also many other ways that everyone can get involved in holding our government accountable for climate change.

The Redford Center Grants program supports cohorts of dedicated filmmakers working on environmental documentary films that are poised to have real-world impact, including projects like YOUTH v GOV.