Everything Will Change
Can this dystopian road movie from the future save us?
Time travel meets the biodiversity crisis in Marten Persiel’s documentary fairytale as three young mavericks set out to uncover the hidden truth of the 2020s… the decade when everything changed
When we looked to the future it was black,Aisha Prigann
and when we looked to the past it was gold,
but the hue of the present was hidden to us
until this tale was told.
The year is 2054, a near future where nature has been stripped of the full colour spectrum we know today, narrowed down to stretches of crops and patches of barren land set in saturated, unnatural shades of blue and orange red.
Society is shaped by waves of pandemics and an increasing paranoia as deep fakes have become commonplace. Misinformation is rampant. Truth and credibility have gone out the window and images are no longer simply to be believed. So when a young analog-lover in a junky future thrift store encounters a mysterious photo of a long-necked creature tumbling out of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, a quest begins to uncover the truth of a more colourful past, and maybe turn it around.
In Marten Persiel’s feature film, Everything Will Change, we see a telling of the biodiversity crisis that feels part cyberpunk science fiction fairytale, part university class taught by a dream team of everyone’s favourite professors. The dystopian road movie from the year 2054 takes us on a journey back to our present moment – the 2020s, when a bright future was still possible, but everything changed – and gives feeling to today’s current mind-boggling facts and figures spelling out a sixth mass species extinction.
These are numbers that have the tendency to send any rational human being into a mild state of paralysis. Of the species we know to exist, experts estimate the current extinction rate to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate, with a staggering 1,000,000 species currently threatened with extinction.
The topic of biodiversity loss and defending nature is not something new for the film’s director and writer, Marten Persiel. Growing up in an environmentalist family in the swamplands of 1980’s West Germany, Marten recalls a sticker on the bathroom toilet of his family home that read, “Artenvielfalt ist Lebensqualität”, or, “Biodiversity is Quality of Life.”
“In the ‘80s, during my childhood, the destruction of nature was something that was happening in the background and worth fighting against,” he says. “But now, the stakes are different.”
After the release of his first film, This Ain’t California, a fiction meets non-fiction coming of age tale of anarchic skate culture in the German Democratic Republic, Marten found himself trying to figure out the subject matter of his next project. What did he really care about? The answer to that question, and the beginning of Everything Will Change, would be inspired by Spanish highways and hummingbirds.
“I realised what I really cared about was a kind of richness. The opposite of flat walls and straight lines. I was driving through Spain and had a realisation while looking around and seeing rows of one crop, just one. No trees, no nothing. I saw a line where there should have been the world. Where there should have been more.”
Photo by Christoph Köstlin
Marten’s monoculture moment spurred a deep dive into research surrounding the loss of nature and an exploration into capturing what this sense of loss meant.
“I tried to make this feeling a thing, to put this into a film. For me, I had to find the words, to find a vocabulary, and I realised there wasn’t really one. Psychology is beginning to have climate terminology that talks about the depression and anxiety you can get from realising what’s going on with the climate crisis. It’s called climate dread. But in the biodiversity and extinction context, we don’t have this terminology to talk about our feelings there. It’s not climate dread. It’s seeing the beauty, and saying, I don’t want this beauty to be gone.”
It’s not climate dread. It’s seeing the beauty, and saying, I don’t want this beauty to be gone.Marten Persiel
While attending the Villa Aroura Artist Residence in Los Angeles, California in 2013, Marten began to not only encounter the vocabulary needed to write Everything Will Change, alongside co-writer Aisha Prigann, but he’d also meet a specific species that would prove important to the film’s approach to biodiversity.
“In California, I saw hummingbirds everywhere! They are fragile. They are clearly beautiful, and they fit this capricious idea of nature, which I really like. The hummingbird, the giraffe, these species show that evolution can be playful. And that’s why it all feels like a fairytale. Beyond just the logic that Darwin found out, it feels like something spiritual is going on.”
And just like that, the journey of Everything Will Change began. The production of the film would end up intimately bringing together the worlds of cinema and science in a way that has not quite been done before.
On screen, we’re met with a visually stunning yet unsettling interpretation of the 2050s, which largely has to do with the movie’s handling of colour and innovation in filmmaking. Ironically, the unnatural fields of bright red and orange are actually the camera capturing just the opposite: green life, a result of infrared frequency of light technology that specifically reacts to chlorophyll.
Amidst this strange landscape, we see protagonist Ben, played by Noah Saavedra, and his two friends, Fini and Cherry, set out to document the hidden truth of the extinction crisis from those who witnessed it, using future technology installed within Ben’s eyes.
We see acclaimed director, Wim Wenders, appear as a future scientist, speaking to us from a bunker housing information and archival footage, tucked away somewhere in the barren landscape of a post biodiversity extinction world. And embedded within this sci-fi story, we see real life, present day environmental scientists and scholars, sharing expertise and knowledge from the future about our current moment, the 2020s. And we believe it.
Marten’s approach to including environmental facts straight from those who are on today’s frontlines of this research was deliberate.
“When I approached these experts, I called them and said, I have this project where I want to look at our time from the future,” he explains. “I want to do a kind of interview where you’re going to be from the future, and you’re going to have to grammatically play that game. 100% of them said they wanted to do this. As a filmmaker, I think if people don’t know a subject, and they can’t feel it, their attention cannot be held. The “feel” is very valuable. It’s something that science has a problem with, to make people feel the numbers.”
For actor Noah Saavedra, who plays Ben, the film’s protagonist, the experts featured are playing more than just a grammatical game.
Noah tells me, “They had to have a little mind game going on: imagining how it would be in the future. But isn’t that what acting is? There is a lot to be found in telling a story this way. Mixing experts of our modern society with experts in storytelling, elevating the story to something else. I’d never seen something like this before.”
One of the expert voices appearing through Ben’s shaky perspective, is Professor Ursula Heise. Chair of the Department of English at UCLA, Director of the Lab for the university’s Environmental Narrative Strategies at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, author of Imagining Extinction, and Guggenheim Fellow, (to name just a few of her titles), Ursula has spent much of her academic career researching and teaching on the stories, symbols, and strategies we’ve used across cultures that have shaped our relationship with nature. Entering into a storyline herself, however, was something new to her.
“Something essential about a good deal of science fiction, and that is essential in the film, is that science fiction takes us into a future, as a way of understanding our own present as the remote past of a society that is yet to come. It’s that distance, looking at our present as the past, that allows us to see what’s wrong. That was the hardest part for me. When you’re in an interview, you use the present and the future to describe environmental issues, but you don’t usually try to actually put yourself in the position of the future.”
Grammatical game or an entry into acting, Marten’s exercise of bringing in these expert voices – featuring leading voices from the worlds of conservation biology and ecology, environmental science and policy, climate science, marine biology and agriculture – was also an invitation to play a thought experiment specific to the biodiversity crisis. For Ursula, this was unique.
“Marten’s particular instruction to us was to say why the 2020s were so decisive, because the film sees the 2020s as the moment when things can still be turned around, after which you’d pass a tipping point where things are no longer reversible. This was interesting and challenging for me.”
Because while this is true for climate change, in biodiversity loss, that has not been as common a way of speaking. “Conservation biologists have always said that time is running out, but it’s been more abstract, as biodiversity loss has been a much more gradual process than climate change. It was harder for me to think of the 2020s as the turning point, but it was a really interesting thought experiment: what if it is right now that we have to turn it around?”
What if it is right now that we have to turn it around?”Ursula Heise
For both climate change and the biodiversity crisis, the real question we might ask ourselves is not when we have to turn it around, but if we are going to turn it around. And here, we inevitably arrive at another question, one maybe closer to the core of the matter: when faced with these looming existential threats, what story do we tell ourselves? What do we choose: optimism or pessimism?
As a leading voice observing the questions and narrative trends surrounding how we’ve told stories about environmental issues across histories and cultures, I tend to listen to Ursula when she tells me she’s on the side of hope. This isn’t some vague, abstract kind of optimism we’re talking about here. We’re talking about strategic, fair optimism. Let’s dive into it.
Ursula tells me that since the 1960s it’s been common to use apocalyptic narratives and disaster discourse in conveying environmental science and shaping environmental futures. In the context of climate change today, she shares that this type of apocalyptic, oftentimes sensationalised storytelling has become the norm, and that it seems to be increasingly harder to find stories that dare to imagine that things might get better. Of course, taking a bleaker route when faced with some of the statistics out there might feel fitting, but Ursula argues that there are some serious problems with this approach to storytelling.
There’s the obvious issue of growing depressed, demoralised, and paralysed into accepting our current reality. But there’s another glaring problem to the pessimistic path.
“There are quite a few postcolonial and Indigenous scholars who have argued that this fear of big disasters, of apocalypse, of a whole way of life or an entire civilization going under, is a fear for people in the global north. But the fact is, that a lot of countries, regions and communities that have been colonised have already experienced that,” she explains.
“Think of Indigenous peoples in North and South America, Aboriginal peoples in Australia, communities in Africa. They’ve already experienced the total destruction of their ways of life, the destruction of ecologies, the catastrophic decline in their population. They’ve already seen what it’s like to lose a whole way of life and then have to try and see if some of it can be gained back. So some people would argue that the typical pessimistic storytelling about environmental futures also reflects a particular privileged, white, northern perspective, whereas it ignores how many people in the world have already undergone exactly that kind of experience.”
Looking to the future with constructive optimism is a point Ursula makes in teaching her young students at UCLA today, and something she specifically liked about Everything Will Change. The film is by no means a happily ever after fairytale, resolving the extinction crisis with a single sweeping answer. The story, true to its sci-fi genre, is ultimately a dialogue between future and present people. It’s a reminder, as Ben tells us in the film, that “there is a future, and there are people in it.”
There is a future, and there are people in it.”‘Ben’
For the average person, it doesn’t get much more abstract than trying to understand the climate and biodiversity crises. This is partly because the core of these issues has to do with a concept that we as humans (at least in much of Western culture) still seem to struggle with: time.
In the past, we’ve been known to rewrite history and have long overlooked people and cultures that have lived in balance with their environments. In the present, many of us are looking at a rapidly changing world feeling overwhelmed and scared. In the short term, our current societies and economic structures remain motivated by nearsighted profits. In the long term, we continue to head toward unchecked growth. As one of the only species proven to have a concept of time, doesn’t it seem like we could be making better use of it?
Let’s take a note out of Ursula’s book and admit it: we’re not in a place where pessimism is useful. So let’s do the thing that is sometimes unexpected at a moment like this, when we as a species really need to get our shit together. Fire up the imagination. Play a little mind game, as Noah put it.
What would happen if we shifted our relationship with time from a fear based one to a truly strategic one? Expanding our notion of human rights to incorporate the interests of both current and future generations, like Ben, Fini and Cherry? Hint, it’s already happening. Could we take this a step further? What would it look like if we redefined our perceptions of justice not only when considering future peoples, but when considering nonhuman life? Can animals have rights? Can insects and plants have rights? Could decentering our story with time and with our own species, not just be a chance to save the beauty and richness that Marten was first inspired by, but also an opportunity to collectively evolve?
I recognise that these questions feel intangible and that we have a long way to go. There are many places in today’s world that still struggle with acknowledging and protecting basic human rights. Our current economic structures and slow moving governments can make it feel impossible to push the needle in the right direction. But considering language to be an origin for change, reimagining and shifting the story we collectively tell ourselves seems like a good place to start.
Everything Will Change lets us see what tangible outcomes from a shift like this might look like. It gives us different futures that both feel real, depending on the story we choose to tell ourselves.
As I speak with Noah, someone who is used to acting out and embodying different stories, he tells me, “How we talk to ourselves about how it will all turn out is important. It might be a psychological trick, but I think the mindset that we take is important.”
Listening to the future-hailing words of his character Ben, “This is the story of a garden, and you get to choose which characters live and which die. You are the last people who get to make that choice, but you’re the first to know what to do. Yours is the time when anything could happen next.”
Yours is the time when anything could happen next.‘Ben’
Everything Will Change is a German-Dutch co-production staged by Flare Film, Windmill Film, Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg – RBB, NDR – Norddeutscher Rundfunk, BR Bayerischer Rundfunk, KRO-NCRV, and ARTE Deutschland. Farbfilm Verleih GmBH is in charge of its distribution.
What’s so good about this?
A sixth mass extinction. Over 41,000 species currently threatened with extinction. Birds, mammals, and amphibians going extinct at least 100 to 1,000 times faster than in the millions of years before humans started to dominate the planet. What’s worse than the numbers being scary? When they stop being scary. Everything Will Change puts the numbers back into perspective through a futuristic fairytale told alongside archival footage and interviews with real-life experts – giving us the biodiversity crisis as it’s never been presented before. It reminds us that there truly is no time like the present.
Meet the writer
Laura Moreno is a creative writer, singer and communications specialist in the world of ocean conservation, currently making her foray into freelance journalism. When she’s not surfing one of two west coasts, (splitting time between California and Portugal), she spends her days digging for hidden sonic gems in the depths of record shops and creating synthy tunes. Laura’s all about the words, sounds, movements and music that make good stories come alive.