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Coming Clean, A Demand for a Fossil Free UC: An Interview with Carolina Montejo

Please tell us about the projects you worked on before making ‘Coming Clean, A Demand for a Fossil Free UC’. How did you start, and how did you learn to make documentaries?

Before making Coming Clean, I had mostly been making experimental films, primarily ecocinema, as well as video art. My longest film had been the 40-minute Rizomas (2021 )which is an experimental documentary that travels through diverse imaginaries, memories, and realities of nature and their overlap between plant, human, and animal existence. The nomadic storyline shifted between a series of intimate documentations, a political manifesto, a 3D animated utopia, a collaboration with a network of urban farmers, as well as a metaphorical dance sequence shot in 16mm. Expanding through an eco-feminist ethos, Rizomas moved between language, place, and time to reveal the constancy of the material world through the moving image. My short film Displace/ Anchor (2019) related plants and humans based on their emplacement in the land and their entanglement as creatures of the earth. Pairing documentary images from Colombia and Brazil with a scripted conversation that moved through categories such as imagination, materiality, decomposition, urbanization, pleasure, and transportation, this short film searched for utopia in the real world. Earlier works included also include the short experimental sci-fi, Leffas: Small Fusion; and the video installations Sphere/ Rose/Place (2019), Of This World (2018), and Mission Ceres (2015).

I was mostly a photographer for the first eight years of my artistic career and transitioned to film/video in 2015. After going to grad school at UCSD and focusing on film under the mentorship of Babette Mangolte, I never turned back! I have been making different types of films since. I learned by doing everything myself at first, lots of hours of technical instruction, camera work, editing, sound recording, writing, trying, and…failing. Critique was also a large part of the process, as well as watching a lot of films and studying their structure.

Tell us about ‘Coming Clean, A Demand for a Fossil Free UC’. How do you describe it?

Coming Clean was such an amazing experience. It was a grassroots film supported by the Green New Deal Movement at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). I joined the movement as a graduate student wanting to use my talents to amplify environmental messages and institutional critique. Adam Aron, the producer and expert in the Psychology of Climate Change, pitched the idea right after I got my MFA and I was on board immediately. He introduced me to the Co-Director, Andre Salehian, a recent graduate from the business program and first-time filmmaker with lots of practical video experience, and we got to work.

The film explored issues with the UC's Carbon Neutrality Plan and its participation in the carbon offset market; a fact that was allowing them to avoid genuine responsibility in the face of climate change. Through various interviews with expert UC professors, students, labor union representatives, and environmental justice advocates, the film addresses why neutrality is not the solution to climate justice, and how keeping fossil fuel in the ground and considering a just transition into green energy was the path forward. By including perspectives from diverse movements, Coming Clean shows the overlap of the environmental movement with that of social justice, labor, and climate action, as well as the importance of local mobilization and people demanding change where they have a voice.

Directors Carolina Montejo, Andre Salehian
Director Carolina Montejo

The film was an important catalyst in the UC’s climate goals, and in addition to various actions carried out by many Green New Deal members and organizers, the UC eventually committed to abandoning the carbon offset strategy. We contributed to that!

Please tell us about your favorite filmmakers.

It depends on the genre and the mode of production! I am a great admirer of Julie Dash, Chantal Ackerman, Agnes Varda, Chris Marker, Tony Gatlif, Maya Deren, and Alain Resnais to mention a few. I also love contemporary filmmakers such as Pedro Almodovar, Barry Jenkins, and Ava Duvernay. Recently, I have also enjoyed the work of Allora and Calzadilla, Asinnajaq, and Kimi Takesue.

If you were given a good budget, what would be your ideal project?

My ideal project at the moment would be a biopic about one of many assassinated environmental leaders from the Global South who faced incredible oppression to fight for social and environmental justice. I love documentaries and experimental films and have enjoyed every project I have been a part of, but right now I am interested in narrative films based on real people and communities. I think more important than how their lives end with violence, what matters is their passion and dedication, and the legacy they leave for others to continue to resist.

Describe how you would ensure that production is on schedule. What steps would you take?

Being realistic about budget and people power is the first step. Having a great team that is committed to the project is also key. I work well with deadlines and I’m very organized with different stages of the production process. In addition to being a filmmaker, I’m also a professor, teaching in semester and quarter systems all year, so I’m used to a fast pace and delivering results.

I set realistic goals and don’t expect people to burn out or forget every other aspect of their lives. I believe in preparing as much as possible but leaving space for intuition to guide parts of the creative process. Being transparent with the team and ensuring great communication can get you to meet your goals while enjoying the process.

What was the hardest part of making ‘Coming Clean, A Demand for a Fossil Free UC’? Each stage had different challenges. Deciding on a narrative strategy was a big move, making sure that the group of interviewees we wanted were available during the week we would be traveling through seven UC California campuses was a long shot, too! Getting some of the decision-makers on camera was difficult and many people canceled for fear of confrontation, so we had to adjust parts of the strategy on the way. Sometimes we needed to be very discrete with our filming, especially close to power plants, and refineries. That was nerve-wracking! The difficult parts ARE the filmmaking process… every production has difficult moments, even if everything is planned out.

If possible, tell us about your next work. What plans do you have for your future work?

Right now I’m writing a treatment for my ideal project, based on true events surrounding environmental leaders, corporate interests, corruption, and violence, but mostly, the story is about the value of life in all its forms and the importance of social action, liberation, and community. I want to tell the amazing story of the people risking their lives to save rivers, animals, and ecosystems, and bring sovereignty to those that have been oppressed by geopolitical interests. We hear about these stories in the news, and through documentaries, which of course are very important, but I want to highlight their lives in a classic cinematic way that also incorporates some of my more experimental approaches to storytelling. In addition to this, I have an ongoing experimental film titled Eco, Fantasy, Premonition, a series of short films that bridge ecological fears and 21st-century climate and social realities with intimacy, scientific prediction, and the possibility to act on our developing future.


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