From photographs of melting icebergs to dance works about acid rain, much of the art aimed at raising awareness of environmental issues tends towards the overly earnest. This can be a bit of a turn off for many people. But a new seven-part comedic web series coming in early summer 2017 aims to use humor to activate minds and hearts around the related themes of global warming and gentrification.
Made in Oakland by a group of Bay Area artists, The North Pole tells the story of best friends Nina, Marcus and Benny. Born and raised in North Oakland ("The North Pole" to locals), they struggle to save their neighborhood as it falls prey to the ills of rising rents, high-priced coffee and the misguided plans of bio-engineering startups.
"For those lucky people who grew up in North Oakland in the 1990s and 2000s, the neighborhood had but one nickname: the North Pole. Young folks growing up in the area called themselves Polar Bears," says Josh Healey, writer and executive producer of The North Pole. "These days, though, the climate of the neighborhood is changing -- fewer barbershops and soul food spots, more condos and kombucha stands -- and it feels like the North Pole’s native species is going extinct. There are some Polar Bears, though, who aren’t going down without a fight."
KQED sat down with Healey and Reyna Amaya, the actor playing Nina in the show, to talk about the project and its connection to the current political climate.
Why did you decide to make The North Pole?
Josh Healey: I wanted to make The North Pole because I love Oakland. I love this crazy planet called Earth. And both these places that I call home are currently going through their own form of "climate change" -- a neutral-sounding phrase that in reality is displacing and destroying communities and the environments we need to survive. For all of us making the show, The North Pole is our collective, comedic middle finger to the corporate looters and polluters. It's our political picket line-turned-comedy roast -- our absurd, sh-t-talking love letter to the people and places that we love and are worth defending.
Reyna Amaya: I knew I wanted to be involved with The North Pole project because it was a story about my hometown, which was exciting to me and it told a story that I felt like people from all over the country could relate to, especially right now. I remember people used to rock hella North Face gear and puff coats in the summer to stay true to the North Pole theme. Seriously, it was that deep. Sharing this piece of Oakland culture is important to me! I love that The North Pole highlights what is happening right now in urban cities around the country while at the same time being able to put the magnifying glass over the environmental issues that have been devastating communities for generations. I knew this was the kind of project people would be able to relate to and fall in love with for multiple reasons.
You wrote and filmed the series before Trump got elected. How has his presidency so far impacted the way you’re thinking about the project and potential action around it going forward?
Healey: It's hard to make satire that's crazier than this president. Like everyone I know (and yes, I do know people who live in exotic red states like Wisconsin and even Florida), I'm horrified by what Trump's doing. I'm terrified. The Muslim ban, the so-called wall, the reversal on Standing Rock and Keystone XL? It's all bad. But I also know that horror and outrage will only get us so far. We also need joy. We need stories of hope and possibility, stories of rebellion and ridiculousness, stories that are bold, beautiful, and even make us laugh a little.
Amaya: I think with Trump's election, it just gives us more to cover, more to touch on that the American people are starving for right now. People want to feel like someone is listening, like someone cares about what's going on in their city, in their community, and in their lives. Why are people marching right now? Because they are frustrated, they don't feel heard and they don't feel like their concerns are being taken into consideration or prioritized. This series gives us an opportunity to have our voices heard, to reach people who have either never thought about these issues as well as the folks who want to join the choir. Art, comedy and media continue to be powerful tools and I'm hoping this series can be another force in uniting us in a positive way.
Tell us about the process of making the series.
Healey: We held auditions for the four main characters, and were lucky to find the perfect actors for each role in Reyna, Donte Clark, Eli Marienthal and Santiago Rosas.
We shot over 14 days last summer and fall. We raised money through various local and national grants, with major support coming from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. We still need to raise $25,000 to pay for our post-production costs, and just launched our Kickstarter campaign hoping that our community can help bring us home.
What’s the timeline for the project going forward?
Healey: We plan to launch in Spring/Summer 2017 with a major premiere in Oakland and national online distribution. Working with the Oakland-based environmental, labor and cultural activism non-profit Movement Generation, we’ll partner with groups fighting for racial justice, climate resilience, and working against displacement. The goal is to make this more than just a web series; we want The North Pole to be be a creative organizing platform to amplify community activism.
How does the project draw a connection between environmental issues and gentrification issues?
Healey: The North Pole is a metaphor for the parallels between urban displacement and ecological disruption. Here in North Oakland and up in the Arctic, the climate is changing -- and the native species (Oakland natives here, polar bears there) is going extinct. But for us making this show, it’s not just a metaphor. This is our home. This is our environment. One of the things we want to challenge with the show is this idea that "climate activism" is just about stopping greenhouse gases or saving the whales. It's really about changing the fundamental nature of this hyper-capitalist economy that is destroying environments across the globe. And that includes for poor people and people of color who are being pushed out of Oakland.
Both with gentrification and climate change, a lot of people throw up their hands and say, "What's the point? It's too late, there's nothing we can do about it." F-ck those people. I'm here on this planet to survive. And while we can't erase the damage that's already been done, we can made the bold, big changes necessary to make our local and global environments a place where everyone can thrive, and no one gets forced out.
What’s the main message you want to get across?
Amaya: Displacement is not the answer. Whether we're talking about rent hikes or environmental issues, if you're kicking people out, you're doing something wrong. I hope people will see that the way we are doing things now is not working and we need to figure out another solution.
How does humor help to get the message across?
Amaya: Humor is like sugar; it makes everything taste better. A lot of the issues we cover in the series are really tough and actually aren't fictitious. People in real life are experiencing what these characters are going through right now in this country. The humor makes it all easy to digest and allows people to start to have some of these difficult conversations which is the first step in leading to change. Humor is an ice-breaker, a tolerance tickler, as well as a thinking activator -- all key ingredients to sparking change. The first place you have to spark change is in the way people think.
Healey: We live in the generation raised on Dave Chapelle and Jon Stewart as our most trusted names in news. Good comedy cuts through the bullsh-t. Laughter is contagious; exactly the type of positive energy we need right now. Most political art, especially art around climate change, is depressing as hell. “Look, here’s another part of the world that is dying. We’re all going to die soon! But hey, come get involved!” isn’t the type of inspiration that gets people out of bed in the morning, let alone join a movement. We’re here to change that. The North Pole isn’t a traditional sitcom. This is a dramatic comedy with unapologetic progressive politics. We start off with the laughs. But the real punchline? It’ll make you want to do more than just laugh.
How will you know that the project has succeeded?
Healey: Success for us means flipping the script on the false narratives that "we have to choose between good jobs or affordable housing"; that "people of color don't care about the environment"; and that when it comes to threats like gentrification and global warming, "there is no alternative." We know there is an alternative, and our communities are building it right here, right now. In Oakland, in Detroit, at Standing Rock, folks are creating a new vision of justice and radical ecology. We're going to broadcast that vision, and we're going to remind people that laughter and joy are a form of medicine, and that we all need to keep going, now more than ever.
Watch Josh Healey with musician Boots Riley in a video about environmental justice: