Turning ideas into seductive, irresistible cinema isn’t easy, especially if they’re the kind of ideas that are good for you. An effective propagandist like Michael Moore, who pulls in a big audience, does it by swinging for the fences of melodrama and farce. And the more sober agit-prop artists often have trouble breaking out of the festival circuit. But a fresh genre of populist persuasion has emerged in recent years that’s met with remarkable success: the dynamic docu-essay . Some notable examples include The Corporation, an likely hit that diagnosed capitalism’s basic organism as a psychopath; The Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s power-point polemic, which put global warming on the map; and Inside Job, a forensic inquiry into Wall Street’s 2008 financial meltdown. The popularity of these films (the last two won Oscars) underscores a genuine appetite for global analysis that the fragmented vision of the news media fails to provide. Also, advances in digital cinematography, graphics and editing have sexed up the docu-essay to the point that ideas can be presented as virtual eye candy. The latest example is Surviving Progress, a Canadian documentary about the increasing weight of the human footprint of the planet. It’s a high-level lesson that is enlightening, engrossing and beautiful to look at.
Written and directed by Canadians Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks—and inspired by Ronald Wright’s best-seller, A Short History of Progress— the film confronts the issue humanity driving itself into ecological debt. Literally digging holes in the planet. The way we treat the the Earth’s natural capital becomes synonymous with the way Wall Street treats wealth. If The Inconvenient Truth and Inside Job had a brainy love child, it might look like Surviving Progress.
The camera roves from the razing of the Amazon rainforest to the evaporation of wealth on Wall Street. The film aims to expose what Wright calls “progress traps,” which sacrifice the future of the environment for short term gains. There are some human interest stories along way, notably a portrait of a Chinese guide who conducts convoys of self-driving car tours, and goes head-to-head with his disapproving father. Much of the film’s substance depends on talking heads. Traditionally that spells boredom. But in this case the heads—who include Margaret Atwood, Jane Goodall and David Suzuki—are so engaging, and so richly photographed, that the pace never drags. The film’s connective tissue consists of lyrical panoramas set to a haunting score, in a style reminiscent of Manufactured Landscapes. As a suite of erudition, the film flows by so painlessly it could be called The Convenient Truth.
At least one critic has knocked the film for being too easy and breezy. And its somewhat amorphous structure may indeed soften the impact—there’s no Al Gore or Matt Damon to pound the point home. But there’s both elegance and prescience in the way Surviving Progress fuses environmental politics with the Occupy Wall Street argument—the film’s production began years before OWS existed. This documentary has a big-picture approach that tackles philosophical issues, as well as political ones. And it’s executed with a finesse that reflects an impressive range of backers—which include the NFB, Denys Arcand producers Daniel Louis and Denise Robert, and executive producers Mark Achbar (The Corporation) and Martin Scorsese.
Surviving Progress marks progress for the docu-essay. It presents some nifty paradigms—like the notion that our brain’s software is still running on primate hardware that hasn’t been upgraded in 50,000 years. And, with intelligent calm, it challenges our passive assumption that the planet is too big to fail.