“How dare you?” Greta Thunberg made headlines when she spoke at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit where she condemned world leaders on their lack of action battling climate change. The youth climate activist is educating and sharing her viewpoint on climate change along with other environmentalists in Jennifer Abbott’s most recent documentary, The Magnitude of All Things.
The Magnitude of All Things is a raw exploration into the emotional effect climate change has on society and its similarities to grief we share for our loved ones. Abbott, a Sundance and Genie award-winning filmmaker and director, shares the grief she felt during her sister’s battle with cancer as a parallel to the grief humans feel from climate change.
The documentary premiered at the 2020 Vancouver International Film Festival before playing internationally in the Netherlands, California, New Zealand and South Korea. The Magnitude of All Things is one of four feature films chosen by the National Film Board of Canada to play at Alberta’s NorthwestFest.
We spoke with Jennifer Abbott about how her film, The Magnitude of All Things, is adding to the climate change conversation.
ED: The Magnitude of All Things came out in 2020. What inspired you to make a film about climate change?
Abbott: I was in my garden and I looked up to see what I thought was snow falling, but then I realized it was ash. I knew that there was a forest fire nearby that was causing the ash to evolve, and I realized that I was feeling grief for the loss of the world. A few years prior to that, my sister passed away from cancer, so I was very well acquainted with the feeling of grief. I recognized what I was feeling in my garden was similar in tenor, but different in intensity from the feelings of grief I felt when my sister passed away. It was at that moment that I recognized there’s this emotional and psychological dimension to the climate crisis that at the time was largely absent from our public discourse. That was when I decided I wanted to make a film about the climate crisis.
ED: How would you describe climate grief for those who are unfamiliar with the concept?
Abbott: What I attempt to do in The Magnitude of Things is show how the grief we feel for our loved ones is in many ways an emotion that is not only applicable to the loss of a human or the love of human, but rather can be, and is very much present in our experience at the loss of a landscape, a forest, of basically all the world as we know it.
ED: In the film, you share stories from many people who are experiencing grief from climate change. Why was it important for you to include your own voice in the film?
Abbott: I fully acknowledge that there are many people out there, including many viewers of my film who are very much present within climate discourse. But I think there’s a larger segment of the population where the scale and violence of the climate crisis is just so overwhelming and so depressing. My idea was to tell two parallel narratives. One is the story of my sister coming to terms with her deepest fears and sorrows, and I thought many people were able to relate to that. It’s a deeply personal story, and it’s a story I wanted to tell. I used that story to open a doorway to these larger issues of climate change. It’s not just my sister coming to terms with her deepest fears, but also we as a species coming to terms with our deepest fears related to the loss of the world.
ED: There are many ways people deal with grief. Do you think the same thing can be said about how people deal with grief about climate change?
Abbott: Every individual is going to experience climate change differently and cope with it differently. From one end of the spectrum, we see extreme denial. A lot of people who are in extreme denial just continue with business as usual. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there are people who are so steeped in despair, that they become immobilized. I understand that, and I have a lot of compassion for that. What I’m trying to do with The Magnitude of All Things is show people a way to use these difficult emotions to energize, not immobilize. You don’t always get over grief, but you can let it transform you for the better so you become a stronger, more resilient person.
ED: In what ways do you think your film contributes to the climate change conversation?
Abbott: I really hope that The Magnitude of All Things gives viewers the permission to begin what is a difficult and lengthy process of facing their deepest fears and sorrows about the climate crisis. My hope is that, for those who are looking away, they will perhaps find some fortification and courage to look forwards. I think it takes a lot of energy for people who know about climate change to push it away. It’s surprising to many viewers just how cathartic they’ve found the process of watching The Magnitude of All Things in the sense that it’s such a relief to put that burden down. You don’t have to push it away. It’s a tremendous relief to turn towards our deepest fears and the climate crisis that we as a species have created. I hope that the film empowers some viewers to do that as well.
Watch The Magnitude of All Things virtually at NorthwestFest until May 16. Tickets are available online.