In 2015, 21 plaintiffs, ranging in age from 10 to 22, filed a groundbreaking climate-related lawsuit against the United States government. Filmmaker Christi Cooper’s latest film, Youth v Gov, follows the courageous youth as they fight to safeguard not only their rights, but look to change our world for the better.
From Friday, March 12 through Thursday, March 18, Youth v Gov will screen as part of HamptonsFilm’s Air, Land & Sea series. The virtual viewing will include a Q&A with Cooper, HamptonsFilm Artistic Director David Nugent, and Youth v Gov producer Olivia Ahnemann.
We spoke with Cooper about Juliana v. United States – which has been called “the most important lawsuit on the planet” by legal experts, the inspiring plaintiffs, and more.
It’s pretty incredible that 21 kids, ranging in age from 10 to 22, banded together to take on this landmark case.
CC: Yes, it is.
At what stage did you start filming the plaintiffs and how long did you end up filming them?
CC: I started working with this group of young people in the spring of 2016. We just finished the project in November, so it was four and a half years of filming and working with these young people. Some of them I had worked on another project back in 2011/2012 with. That was my entry point into knowing about these kinds of litigation cases and working with young people.
What project was that?
CC: It was a short project called Stories of Trust. And they were ten short stories about young people who are suing their state governments for their impacts on climate change. And Kelsey Juliana, who’s in this case, was one of the short stories, as well as Xiuhtezcatl Martinez.
What piqued your interest about Youth v Gov?
CC: You know, I think in the work that I had done on those shorts, I was introduced, in a deeper way, into the role of our judicial branch, as one of our three branches of governance. Through my research and understanding, I was gaining a deeper sense of the judicial roles. The judicial branch has a role in solving the climate crisis. And I think it coming from the youth perspective, and through their voice and their kind of ability to see through – or not to be blinded by all of the political sway and influence, they just really see this from a very right and wrong and justice issue. That was really refreshing to me. It was a really refreshing change of conversation to be talking about the government’s role and what that means to protect our constitutional rights and just really coming at the climate conversation from a different perspective.
The case faced many roadblocks along the way. How was morale throughout filming?
CC: There were a lot of ups and downs, there were moments of really feeling like things were headed in the right direction. There were definitely moments of devastation. In 2018, we were ten days away from a 12-week long trial, and the kids, most of them had done their depositions and were really excited to finally be moving towards trial. And then for that to be halted… That was probably the lowest moment, really, in their experience and having to pick themselves up again, at that point. And realizing that this was going to be a longer process than they thought. But I think the relationship and the families they built together have really helped them to sustain a lot of those challenges.
There’s 60 years documenting climate change and how poor decision-making has impacted our globe. Was there anything you were surprised to learn during filming?
CC: Well, I was really surprised to learn how far back it went. We really dug into the evidence and into the research, to actually really understand what the government’s own scientists were telling them in the 1950s and ’60s. That’s shocking. It’s shocking to see that evidence and then to see the decisions that were continuously made over the following decades. I think it was also really hard to digest some of the decisions that President Carter and also President Obama made. Also, the blatant, almost pride that President Obama had in making us the biggest oil and gas producer in the world. Those were things I didn’t know going into this project – and were quite shocking to me.
Where does the case stand now?
CC: So they just recently had a decision, a few weeks ago by the Ninth Circuit Court. They denied their petition for en banc review, so the plaintiffs are now appealing the case to the United States Supreme Court. And that is going to be a longer process. There’s an opportunity now, and has been since the Biden administration transitioned that they can come to the settlement table on the case. There’s a lot of opportunities for different directions that the case could go, depending on how the Biden administration decides to defend the case.
It seems like this case sparked additional cases globally. What do you think that the implications of Juliana v. United States will be?
CC: I think they’re huge. I think young people seeing themselves in a story on screen, taking this kind of action, taking this bold stand, to hold their government accountable. Kids across the world have been inspired by this case. And these ongoing global efforts of young people using their own constitutions to hold their governments accountable, I think this is just starting. We’re in the beginning of where all of this is going and where this new generation is going to take us. I think it’s pretty exciting.
The documentary will fittingly screen as part of HamptonsFilm’s Air, Land & Sea series. Who do you hope people take away from the film?
CC: I really hope that people feel a sense of power, in having more truth and more information. I think this story is powerful, in the sense of the knowledge that it gives you as a viewer. I hope that the audience feels empowered to hold their elected officials accountable, whether that’s their school board, or their president, but really to look at what their role is in democracy, and how they can use their voice, regardless of how old they are, to be a part of it.
What are you working on next?
CC: This is still going to be part of my life. For the time being, we’re developing a robust impact campaign that will be launched with the public release of the film. So, I’m definitely going to be working on this for the foreseeable future, at least until we can get that launched and able to have legs of its own.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
CC: I think something that we feel is really important, and I think I kind of mentioned this, is just the nonpartisan portrayal of the story. This is really about across the board of both administrations playing a role in getting us to where we are. And I think that’s an important piece of the puzzle.
Tickets are $10. In addition to Youth v Gov, a discussion with the East Hampton High School’s Environmental Club about the film and their local efforts will also be available to view on HamptonsFilm’s website.
For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org. For more information about Youth v Gov, visit youthvgovthefilm.com.