"Criticality and hope" - Director Stefano Da Fre on youth activism

Da Fre's documentary 'The Day I Had to Grow Up' covers youth activism and the climate crisis. He talked to The Courier about activism and social media, and where we can find hope in these times.

Jon Deery
29th November 2021
Actor and director Stefano Da Fre (left) and activist Jeremy Ornstein (right), who is featured in Da Fre's recent documentary 'The Day I Had to Grow Up'. Image credits: Stefano Da Fre and Jeremy Ornstein on Facebook
In 2020, Stefano Da Fre directed (alongside his frequent collaborator Laura Pelligrini) the documentary The Day I Had to Grow Up. It tells the stories of six young activists struggling to campaign on a variety of topics, but centers largely around the inspiring viral speeches of Jeremy Ornstein, a prominent climate activist in the Sunrise movement. In an interview with The Courier, Da Fre discussed what he’d learned from making the documentary, as well as discussing his opinions on modern activism.
The short preview trailer for The Day I Had to Grow Up

It was a specific activist that drew Da Fre to create this documentary. “Jeremy inspired me. And I’m not often inspired in politics,” he said. “He felt authentic, he was human, he was flawed, and he was open.”

Da Fre believes that Gen Z as a whole, of which Ornstein is a part, is “extremely more involved than [he] was as a kid” in political campaigning, and he gave a technologically specific reason for that shift. “No political generation previous to yours, including my own, ever had social media,” he pointed out, highlighting that with social media comes “a louder microphone; you can get information out very quickly, you can help create advocacy, and you can certainly get awareness to a problem.”

Beyond social media, Da Fre said young activists specifically had an advantage, because “they come at the intersection between criticality and hope. They see the world’s pain, but they also see the world’s possibility.”

That phrase - “the intersection between criticality and hope” - comes from Jeremy Ornstein himself, and is featured in the documentary. At another point, Ornstein, despite being known internationally for his emotional public speaking, denies that he is primarily a speaker - he prefers instead to view himself as “a student, a learner and a listener.”

Jeremy Ornstein's emotional speech outside Nancy Pelosi's office, which features heavily in The Day I Had to Grow Up

Understanding the complexities of intimidating scientific and political topics like the climate crisis and Big Tech involves a great deal of studying, learning and listening. For any young person, it might appear like other people are better equipped to join campaign efforts on these issues, since other people can appear more well-studied in the literature than the young person themselves. But is there a point we can reach at which we can say, “I know enough about this issue now; I’ll start campaigning”; do we ever know enough to speak with moral authority on complicated issues?

According to Stefano Da Fre, “you don’t.”

“You have to embrace your humanity,” he says, “that you’re gonna make mistakes. You’re at whatever age you are, in your twenties, and you’re gonna get better. And the most important measure for that is that you’re better than you used to be. You’re more intelligent and more aware than you used to be. If you can hold that principle for you as an individual, then you will do good in this society. You will be someone who listens well, and will offer advice when being asked.

“There is no marker to say ‘I now know enough and it’s time to do it’,” he concludes; “you just have to try.”

But for young campaigners in the 21st century, there are new obstacles to be confronted. Despite its usefulness, Da Fre believes social media is damaging modern-day activism by feeding people “information and views that [they] already agree with.” As a result, people “have a harder time building community”.

He thinks that this problem could be overcome if social media was used “in a positive sense to meet each other as people, keeping awareness to maybe assemblies, or local town halls”. (This in-person focussed advice, he added, was advice he was giving “as if covid didn’t exist”, since his documentary was “made beforehand”.) 

A Fox News interview with Stefano Da Fre and his co-director Laura Pellegrini about the documentary

Despite his reservations, though, Da Fre claims to be “an optimist at heart” about social media: “we’re not at the 2.0. We’re at the beta testing,” he said, “[but] I think that social media will have to evolve, as the needs of what we’re missing from social media evolve, and we become conscious of that”.

He is optimistic too about the future of protests: “People will walk on the streets for I think another thousand years,” he said. “They will always want to march on the streets. There will always be protesters.”

A major theme in the documentary, obviously enough from the title, is the theme of ‘growing up’. Da Fre talked in the interview about some of the main things that would cause people to ‘grow up’ in a political sense, saying that “for many kids in America, it’s climate change. It is the wildfires. When I was a kid, you had wildfires every five to ten years in California. Now we have ‘wildfire season’ in California, and it is insane. I live in New York City - I have never seen the subway flooded and shut down three times in one summer.”

[I]f you realise you're both suffering together at the same time, then you can have hope.

Stefano Da Fre

I ended the interview by asking Da Fre where he finds hope in this chaotic political landscape. His immediate answer was “I get hope from making films. My hope is in cinema, and filmmaking, and that’s my real love. That’s where my heart belongs, in storytelling.”

He then went on to include that he also gets hope from the fact that “people want to be together, want to learn more, listen to each other.” He thinks that people should be “Keeping the discussion open, keeping the discussion respectful, liking people who you disagree with”.

Liking the people you disagree with was very important for Da Fre. “Humanise them,” he said, “because if you realise you’re both suffering together at the same time, then you can have hope, because you recognise the humanity in one another.”

The Day I Had to Grow Up is available on Amazon Video.

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