March 25, 2018


THE RELUCTANT RADICAL posits documentary as an extension of activism. It creates from its opening scene an inexorable trajectory towards its climax: climate activist Ken Ward’s boldest direct action yet, in which he and a coordinated group of environmentalists shut down the TransMountain pipeline in 2016. As a result of this action, activists and documentarians alike are arrested and await trial.


Ward’s narrative is framed by the sobriety of the case brought to the Skagit County Superior Court of Washington state. Defense attorney Ralph Hurvitz, representing Ward, asks the jury to consider the role of civil disobedience–not as a remote hagiography of founding fathers, but as a transformative force in the US today. That the jury, for the sake of privacy, remains anonymous and off-screen lends the documentary a certain urgency; as a viewer, you join the jury of Ward’s peers. TRR thus sharpens the self-consciousness of its viewership through its mode of address, posing the questions: Where do you stand? How do you do it?

Similarly, director Lindsey Grayzel locates the voices of the environmentalists as they are amplified in a bright sea of touch-screens. Here, the documentary filmmaker’s lens is not alone, but surrounded by auto-documentation meant for instantaneous publication on social media platforms. This is another aspect in which the radical’s action is intrinsically connected to the act’s mediation and portrayal. Such reflexivity prompts a host of questions: Does it create a sense of competition for the director? Or how does a director differentiate the intent of social media documentation from the intent of a feature film-in-progress?


Throughout the film, TRR develops the figure of the caretaker (or in Ward’s case, multiple figures): a figure in the activist’s life who may not participate directly in the protest, but whose role as a support agent is equally significant in activism’s equation. In the depiction of Ward’s persona, the human counterweight of the support figure offsets the classically tragic notion of the radical as a fundamentally individual and dissociative figure, while it also sheds light on the social expenses of direct action. Activists are not simply administrators of self-sacrifice; they tend to rely on a network of support in order to effect their political struggle.


When Ward contests the label of ‘radical’ toward the end of TRR, it is more than a show of sheepish humility. For him, the term seems too freighted for the activism he feels is necessary; here, Ward is calling for an asceticism of personal aesthetic. Here and elsewhere in Grayzel’s documentary, action and representation are not disparate but intricately connected, so much so that the act of mediation itself is a political choice, and the question of activism’s discursive reality remains: What do you think, and what will you make of it?

THE RELUCTANT RADICAL screens on Sunday, March 25 at 7:20pm and can be purchased at The Salem Film Fest Box Office or via the SFF website here:

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