In the first of a series of interviews and posts about climate change and the arts, the CPA talks to Cheat Neutral’s Alex Randall
CPA: Alex, in 2007 you and two friends made a film called Cheat Neutral – a very funny satire about carbon offsetting. The film went viral and it won a number of awards. Can you tell me a bit more about the film?
Alex: The premise of Cheat Neutral is that it’s an off-setting company but rather than offsetting carbon emissions it offsets cheating and infidelity. So you can have an indiscretion and you then pay a small amount of money for someone else to remain single or faithful to their partner. The joke is that like carbon offsetting, it’s making sure that the total amount of cheating in the world doesn’t go up. We set up a website where people could pay £2.50 to offset their infidelity and the film shows us launching the company, promoting it in the centre of Cardiff and the media coverage that ensued.
CPA: There are some very touching moments in the interviews you do in Cardiff. What was it like doing those vox pops?
Alex: The experience of talking to the public was an interesting one because we were presenting them with something really silly, pretending that it’s deadly serious and that it’s our new business, but obviously it’s completely absurd.
Interestingly, when we asked some people if having bought our product they would consider cheating on their partner, some said that they would. I don’t know whether that tells you more about them as people or the extent to which everything about our lives has become so marketised and so commodified that when you tell people that there’s a service where they can pay to go on cheating they go “Ah! I can pay for almost anything else online…so why not this?”
But most people we spoke to did think that the idea that you can offset your infidelity is absurd. They go “Well obviously it matters who does the cheating.” And then, from there, they maybe see the absurdity in carbon offsetting. They then have the opportunity to go “But, that doesn’t work, how can you do that?” “Is that legal?” “How on earth do you think that that’s OK?”
CPA: You’re drawing on a number of traditions in the film aren’t you – on the one hand TV formats like Candid Camera, and on the other street theatre and performance art.
Alex: Right…in British comedy there’s a kind of long and noble tradition where you do something ridiculous in front of members of the public and film their reaction. The peak of that was probably Dom Joly’s ‘Trigger Happy TV’. But what we were doing was also informed by our activism. We were involved in Climate Camp – direct action against airport expansion and new coal-fired power-stations. – and in actions against open-cast coal mining. It was protest but it was also disrupting the work of the place – we’d chain ourselves to diggers and occupy the mine for as long as we could.
When you look at direct action it is half theatre – unless you’re doing a really covert action where you’re just trying to screw something up. If you want to be photographed by the press then there’s got to be an element of theatre in it. Buried in all those direct actions are a plot and a story. It is often David vs Goliath – every time you see a tiny Greenpeace speedboat, bouncing around in front of a whaling ship, they don’t need to tell you the story because it’s in the bible. The trick with activism, is often that you find a powerful story that already exists and you create a very obvious shortcut to it.
There are risks to creating those story shortcuts as well – think of the activist standing on top of something being dragged away or arrested and the story is suddenly ‘I’m Jesus Christ – I’ve sacrificed myself for you.’ And then people are just like – ‘Screw you – get out of here with your Jesus complex.’
CPA: So what was the story you were hooking into with Cheat Neutral?
Alex: It’s the story that everyone knows of being dumped or cheated on. Everyone shares it and goes – I know how that pans out. But also everyone secretly goes, yeah, maybe I could do that – and the stories unfold in front of you…
CPA: Brecht famously described the difference between conventional theatre and what he called his epic theatre – a self-consciously political form of theatre – by saying that in conventional theatre the audience views the drama and everything is self-evident: that’s life, that’s the way it will always be, suffering grips because there is no escape. But in epic theatre – or political theatre – the audience views the drama and says: I would never have thought that. You can’t do that. That has to stop. The conventional relationship between audience and theatre is disrupted, producing the possibility of political awareness and dissent. Can you relate that to what you were trying to do with Cheat Neutral?
Alex: Part of the comedy was that disruption of people’s assumptions. People would come up to us and go “But it doesn’t work does it, because how do you check whether people are really staying single or not?” And we’d be like, “How do you check that they really planted those trees? How do you check that the stove that they installed in that village really cancelled as much carbon as they said?”
When you show something really absurd like the idea of offsetting cheating, people can agree that it’s absurd and then make the leap themselves to conclude that carbon offsetting is absurd as well.
A lot of those conversations and arguments didn’t make it into the final cut, but they were certainly entertaining.
CPA: Is comedy in general a good vehicle for talking about climate change?
Alex: There are a number of conventions in TV comedy for dealing with political issues but none of them really produce that disruption that Brecht talks about so I’m not sure that it is. Comedies like ‘The Thick of it’ – or going back further ‘Yes Minister’ – are essentially about the culture of government and the relationship of the civil service, ministers, the press office, the SPADs and so on. That’s the seam of comedy they mine. I thought ‘The Thick of it’ was hilarious in its treatment of corruption, nepotism and hypocrisy but you don’t remember what the department did or the policy issues they were dealing with.
Another convention is TV telethons like Comic Relief or Children in Need which appear to deal with an issue – poverty – but split the comedy and the issue. Russell Howard or whoever does 10 minutes of unrelated stand-up, and then they cut to a serious 10 minute clip where some comedian looks out of their depth and terrified in a school in Africa that last year’s funds have paid for, then everyone phones in and gives money and it’s back to the comedy. But they’re not being mixed are they? It’s an evening of comedy and trauma, but it’s not an evening of comedy about trauma.
Just occasionally someone does create that disruption. There’s a similar event in Australia – a comedy fundraising gala – where the comedian Tim Minchin does this song called ‘Fuck the poor’ – you’ll find it on Youtube – where the premise is ‘You’ve all come here to raise money for these poor people, but you don’t know where they live, whether it’s Africa or Asia, and you’re donating the price of a drink to offset the fact that you don’t give a shit.’ Everyone claps, but he’s mocking them, it’s uncomfortable. They can’t quite accept that he’s trying to undermine the concept of charity that doesn’t address the structural problems of incredible wealth in countries like Britain and Australia and incredible poverty in other countries.
TV telethons can never have jokes about poverty because what would the joke be? The only joke you could make would be: “We do this every year and we haven’t fixed it. We’ve got a TV telethon, we’ve got incredible poverty, we’ve got people texting donations, it’s been going on for years.” That’s the joke.
CPA: And it’s the same with climate change?
CPA: You sound pessimistic. Have things changed in the seven years since you made Cheat Neutral?
Post-Copenhagen, I think there’s definitely a change in the mood amongst people who work on climate change. Around 2005 to 2009 we all really felt that this was an issue that might be fixed. It might not be fixed in exactly the way that we’d campaigned for but progress would be made. There was a hopeful element then, a sense that things weren’t as grim and hopeless as they feel now.
That change has created a number of things, firstly, you don’t really find people trying to be funny about it any more, there aren’t humorous, light-hearted climate change campaigns now. You just don’t find them. And people work on slightly tangential issues. You feel there’s no point in campaigning around international climate policy so you decide to do something on tar sands, or fracking or shale gas because it seems as if you can conceivably change something, there might be a partial victory of some sort. No-one can really bear to work on international issues any more. No-one can really bear it. People still do – campaigners still go to the climate change negotiations and do what they did pre-Copenhagen but certainly the big NGOs aren’t sending as many people, it’s not like 2007,8,9 when there was real energy behind those talks as the key international event to create a new framework for reducing emissions globally.
CPA: Your words were that you can’t bear it…
Alex: Did I say that?
CPA: Maybe we touched on one of the deeper issues of working on climate change, that it does feel unbearable sometimes and comedy doesn’t feel appropriate in a situation that’s unbearable. Comedy was only possible when there was more hope.
Alex: Yes. I think that’s a very good way of looking at it. Sometimes even on issues that are bleak and difficult where there is a conceivable path to victory, then as a campaigner, comedy can be great. If you look at something like ‘Don’t Panic TV’ – the people who made ‘The Revolution will be televised’ – they tackled things like the idiocy of the big society, the bedroom tax, the EDL and Guantanamo through comedy. Although victory is not imminent, you can see that with a change of government or a change in the law or a change in something imaginable, those issues could be changed – maybe not completely fixed but improved.
And that’s why they work. You can see how comedy does provide a route to change, it does move the discussion on, it does add to a milieu of dissent around certain policies, whereas – what would you do with climate change? What would the equivalent be?
CPA: So it’s really hard to be funny about climate change at the moment?
Alex: Yes – firstly it’s hard to be funny about it and secondly, if you did find a joke, how is it creating any change? Maybe there’s a challenge there for Don’t Panic TV or Dom Joly…
CPA: But not for you?
Alex: There was maybe a point where any or all of us could have pursued a career doing comedy or doing film and TV, but none of us did. We were invited in to talk to various production companies. We were summoned to meet the head of Comedy at the BBC. Maybe they invite someone funny in every week to see who they find the most amusing but we were like “Wow, this is a big deal, we’ve hit the big time.” But at the end of the day that wasn’t a world that any of us wanted to be in because it’s not about issues, it’s not about changing anything. At the Awards ceremonies we went to we met a lot of people who were complaining because they hadn’t made it, hadn’t got a part in this, been overlooked by someone for that, and it just didn’t seem particularly appealing. I don’t know if it was really a career that was open to any of us or it’s just that we had a brush with it and peered into that world for a bit and moved on. At the end of the day we made the film because we were activists and campaigners. And we carried on being activists and campaigners.
CPA: What are you all doing now?
Alex: We’re all still involved in work on climate change. I’m running a project on displacement and disasters. Beth Stratford, the director, is doing a Phd in sustainable economics.
CPA: So in the end it was politics that won out for you?
Alex: I guess some forms of art create the possibility of dissent more easily than others. Simply taking climate change as a theme or a subject is not enough. You have to do something more.
Cheat Neutral won the following awards:
Grand Jury Prize, Best Short, Environmental Film Festival at Yale
Short Film Award, Aotearoa Environmental Film Fextival (New Zealand)
Audience Award, Colchester International Film Festival
Audience Award, Cambridge International Film Festival
Best Documentary, Heart Of Gold International Film Festival (Australia)
Best Documentary, Canary Wharf Film Festival
Best Documentary, Rushes Soho Shorts
Honorable Mention, Columbus International Film and Video Festival, Western Psychological Association Film Festival, United Nations Association Film Festival, Taos Mountain Film Festival