It's the environment, stupid

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A new film delivers a powerful global warning, but will anyone listen? By SUSAN MANSFIELD

IT MIGHT JUST BE THE MOST unusual film premiere in the world. The movie will be shown on a solar-powered projector. Stars arriving in cars powered by recycled chip fat will step out on a green carpet. And the action will be relayed live to more than 60 "People's Premieres" in cinemas around the UK.

All this is typical of the ingenuity, quick-thinking and sheer nous behind The Age of Stupid. The climate change drama-documentary, starring Pete Postlethwaite, took five years to make and is "crowd-funded" by 228 small investors, but it's aiming to make a big impact.

For one thing, the director Franny Armstrong has her eye on a multiplex near you. "That's always been the aim," says the 38-year-old, who is best known for the movie McLibel, about the infamous McDonalds libel trial. "That's an impossible aim, because we're talking about climate change, something that nobody wants to be true. The idea that we can really get that into the multiplexes is very, very ambitious, but it's the end of the world so we might as well try."

Armstrong is a whirlwind of focus and energy. No-one she met at last month's Glasgow Film Festival went without leaving their e-mail address on The Age of Stupid mailing list. She has spent five years on the minimum wage making this film and she isn't stopping now. And she's deadly serious when she talks of the end of the world.

The film is set in 2055 in a world devastated by climate change meltdown. Pete Postlethwaite is a lone archivist living in the (melted) Arctic, picking through the earth's film footage and piecing together the story of what went wrong. He looks back 50 years to the people who could have made a difference but didn't. Us.

He watches six true stories unfolding in six countries, interspersed with footage from BBC and ITN news archives and clever animation sequences which explain facts and figures. Apart from the Postlethwaite scenario, the film is entirely factual. The Indian working to set up a low-cost airline with flights as cheap as one rupee, the Nigerian girl fishing waters polluted by western oil companies to raise money for medical school, the wind farm entrepreneur battling NIMBYs in Bedfordshire are true – all true.

Armstrong says the structure of the film was inspired by Steven Soderbergh's movie Traffic, but that a framing device was needed to get the message across. Postlethwaite was "the only actor" for the job, but she couldn't afford him (the entire budget for the film was 450,000). Then she heard he was installing a wind turbine at home, and decided to ask. He agreed to do the film for "much less than a Hollywood fee".

Directing him, says Armstrong, was the biggest highlight of the last five years. "Not that he needs directing," she insists. "He really is my favourite actor, and there he was doing my lines in this set we'd spent two weeks building in a warehouse in Willesden. That was awesome, like winning Jim'll Fix It – the most thrilling thing."

And there have been plenty of thrills in the last five years: filming in Nigeria's kidnap hotspot; walking the streets of Jordan meeting Iraqi refugees; hanging out of helicopters filming aerial shots with a bungee cord tied round her waist: "When you're high budget you have this gyroscope thing attached to a helicopter and the camera crew is inside the helicopter. But we were low budget."

The single most frightening moment was waiting at the Jordan-Iraq border with two Iraqi children who were hoping to be reunited with their older brother. "His car was four hours late, and for that four hours I was thinking, 'What if someone has died because we're making this film?'"

The movie's great strength is in its six stories: Alvin Duvernay, who works as a scientist for Shell in New Orleans, and helped save more than 200 lives during Hurricane Katrina; Nigerian Layefa Malemi, who longs to go to medical school to help the people of her village, but who also longs for "the beautiful life, like they live in America"; Indian entrepreneur Jeh Wadia, who does voluntary work in the slums – but uses his private jet to get there.

"We were looking for people with contradictions," says Armstrong. "No-one destroys the world on purpose. All of us have our own self-justifying myths to allow ourselves to carry on doing what we want to do.

"When Alvin saw the film, he wrote back to me within a day and said, 'I do feel a bit foolish about some of the things I've said, but I understand the greater point you're trying to make, and my ego is irrelevant compared to that.' I was so impressed. If somebody had put me in a film and showed me some contradictory sides of my nature, it would take me about a year to see the bigger picture."

Armstrong says that the idea of a climate change movie has been "looming" in her subconscious for most of her life. She has been passionate about the environment since she first learned about climate change at school. "Countless things over the years have reinforced that this is the most important subject of all time, but it's intimidating to take on the biggest subject of all time, so I put it off for quite a while."

As if it wasn't enough to take on the biggest subject of the age, she is also challenging the way films are made and distributed. Armstrong and executive producer John Battsek (who won an Oscar for his film about the Munich olympics, One Day in September) came up with the idea of "crowd-funding" as a means of maintaining artistic control of the film and to distribute it independently.

Without the backing of a distributor they will have to work hard to get the film noticed. They had hoped it could premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, as Al Gore's eco film An Inconvenient Truth did, but it was rejected. Good box office in its first weekend is crucial. Individuals and groups are also being encouraged to host their own screenings.

Armstrong is hoping that the strong human stories, the presence of Postlethwaite and the film's inventiveness will win over audiences to its uncompromising message: stabilise emisions globally by 2015 or face meltdown. She speaks about individual carbon rationing on a dramatic scale – forget low-energy lightbulbs and think one flight every ten years.

"With McLibel, even if you agreed with everything the film said, all you personally had to do was stop eating McDonalds. It was a very, very easy ask. Whereas this film, if you agree with the argument, it's a case of: 'I have to change everything about my life'." (She has also calculated the film's carbon footprint, which is equivalent to 185 patio heaters for a month.)

Meanwhile, an internet-based campaign – "Not Stupid" – will help viewers find the form of action most suitable for them. The clock is ticking down to the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December, the successor to Kyoto, where an international agreement could be brokered.

One of the biggest barriers to inspiring people to act is the immensity of the problem. If ecological armageddon is less than 50 years away, what can we do?

"I think you just have to turn it around and say we are at this absolute historical moment. No generation has ever been as powerful as us. We have the future of our species in our hands. Personally, I find that very exciting. We could be the generation that people look back on and say, 'They bloody did it!', not 'They didn't bother.'

"When we were making McLibel, we didn't think we could change McDonald's. In the early 1990s, it was an absolutely immovable mountain. Ten years later, everything has changed; there are laws saying you can't advertise junk food to kids. That encourages me that immovable mountains can be moved."

Armstrong says she had no intention of becoming a film-maker. A former drummer for folk-indie rockers The Band of Holy Joy, her skills with film came not from formal training but from helping her father, an independent film-maker. "We were always going on shoots with him, holding the microphone, plugging things in. I had quite an advanced level of knowledge I didn't know I had."

When she heard about the McLibel trial – how a gardener and a postman were being sued by the fast food giant for handing out leaflets detailing its misdeeds – she "thought it was the best story I'd ever heard" and "decided to help out by borrowing my dad's camera and making a little video."

The first version of the film ran up against legal difficulties, but eight years later, after the case concluded at the European Court of Human Rights, a recut version was broadcast on BBC2 and watched by one million people. A cinema release followed. She went on to make Drowned Out, about an Indian family faced with eviction from their village to make way for the Narmada Dam. It was nominated for best documentary at the British Independent Film Awards in 2004.

After a year of promoting and distributing The Age of Stupid, she says she intends to retire. "Because making films is not having a life. And I've said all I want to say, I really have. I want to grow vegetables, and have a dog, and see my neglected family and friends. I want to join in life again."

Is she concerned that she has made some powerful enemies? There are plenty of villains in The Age of Stupid, though the oil companies are arguably at the top of the tree. "My friend Eric Schlosser (the journalist who wrote Fast Food Nation] had to hire body guards to protect him from the fast food industry. He was saying: 'That's nothing, you've got the oil industry!' But if we're all going to die anyway, it's a risk worth taking, isn't it? They can't really assassinate me. If I die in mysterious circumstances, you'll know whodunit."

At the moment, Armstrong is much more interested in her powerful friends. A think-tank associated with Barack Obama wants to present the Washington premiere. Kofi Annan will host a screening in June. Sunday's premiere will be introduced by a personal video message from the President of the Maldives.

And Ed Milliband planned to host a screening in a church hall in his constituency (Doncaster) – until the minister of the church banned the film on grounds of bad language (it contains a handful of expletives).

"It's so funny that we have to protect people," says Armstrong. "It's fine for them to hear that we're going to wipe out our species, but a couple of b******s and one p*ss and you've got to protect them. It is completely absurd. But I don't think I can be bothered to revolutionise censorship as well. We'll just leave that one as it is."

&149 The Age of Stupid is in cinemas nationwide from 20 March. Cinemas hosting People's Premieres tomorrow include: Vue Ocean Terminal, Edinburgh; Glasgow Film Theatre; Belmont, Aberdeen; Odeon Braehead and Vue, Inverness. For tickets and further information, visit www.ageofstupid.net/premiere

Greening the screen

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

After electoral defeat in 2000, former US vice president Al Gore set out on a mission to save the planet. An Inconvenient Truth, directed by Davis Guggenheim, is the story of that mission, and of Gore's own life, and was one of the first mainstream films to take the climate change message to the American public. It went on to win an Oscar for best documentary feature and take $49 million worldwide at the box office.

The 11th Hour (2007)

Leonardo di Caprio weighed into the climate change debate by creating, producing and narrating this documentary featuring a range of talking heads, from Mikhail Gorbachev to Stephen Hawking. It was linked to an internet campaign to channel viewers into activism.

Fields of Fuel (2008)

When it premiered at Sundance in 2008, this film, directed by biofuels expert Josh Tickell, was described as "the most hopeful film of the year". It tells the story of America's relationship with oil, and proposes renewable alternatives, featuring a range of celebrities from Julia Roberts to Willie Nelson.

Burn Up (2008)

The two-part thriller, written for the BBC by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), was an ambitious attempt to take the subject of climate change to British television audiences. Starring Neve Campbell and The West Wing's Bradley Whitford and produced by the team behind Spooks, it concerned the wheeling and dealing of a fictional British oil company.