Over the past few days, North America’s Occupy movements have met significant political resistance. In Vancouver today, city officials launched legal action to dismantle the Occupy camp. In New York, some 20 protesters were arrested over the weekend. In Quebec City, Mayor Régis Labeaume has already warned protesters that police intervention could be imminent. Will the 99 percent’s uninterrupted demonstrations be silenced? And will their many demands translate into concrete political action? Nothing is less certain.
But what you as viewer can bank on (no pun intended) is that the Quebec-made documentary Surviving Progress is still in theatres. Consider it your primer on all that’s exceedingly flawed about capitalism (overconsumption, environmental neglect and the Western world’s untenable economic structures) and how a handful of bigwig bankers pretty much control the fate of humankind. In the same vein as sweeping ‘issue docs’ like The Corporation, Manufacturing Consent and Inside Job, Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks’ film is a disquieting exploration of the (often skewed) understanding of ‘progress’ throughout human civilization.
The film, which takes us to Canada, the U.S., China and Brazil, features a who’s who of the planet’s leading scientists, activists and thinkers – Jane Goodall, Margaret Atwood, David Suzuki and Stephen Hawking – as well as a Brazilian eco cop and a Chinese father and son who’re at odds ideologically (see pictures below). Sure, you might already be familiar with some of the information, but altogether, it makes for a pretty eye-opening, upsetting experience. NIGHTLIFE.CA had a chat with the project’s instigator, director Mathieu Roy.
From left to right: Raquel Taitson-Queiroz, environmental police officer, Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) // Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress // Margaret Atwood, author of Payback: Debt and the Shadow of Wealth
NIGHTLIFE.CA: Your film manages to adapt a very dense book (Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress) for the screen with great pacing – you skip narration, strike a great visual rhythm, and have many segments that are sound bite-free, giving us much-needed breathing room. Where did your inspiration come from?
Mathieu Roy: Cinematographer Mario Janelle and I are both fans of Baraka, Koyaanisqatsi and these visually spectacular docs without a word. Even though I originally suggested that approach to my producers, we ended up adding some real interviews, but I thought it would be important to keep these visual interludes, to digest the density of the ideas presented... To punctuate the film as if it were a music partition.
It took six and a half years to bring the project to fruition. Has your outlook on our collective future changed since that moment when [Quebec director] François Girard first passed on Wright’s book to you?
Not only my worldview, but the world as a whole has changed a lot since 2004-2005. We’ve had a very serious financial crisis, and we’re now getting ourselves into a very serious global debt crisis. Of course, I would say that as the world was changing, I was becoming more aware of the kind of world we were living in. I think I’ve matured into a much more aware global citizen. I understand the mechanisms of our financial systems better – the influence of financial lobbies on the democratic process.
The day you left to shoot segments of the film in Brazil was also the dreaded day in 2008 when the U.S. stock market was dealt a serious can of whoop ass. Your film delves into all of these ‘progress traps’ – the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis being one of them. What do you make of the European Union pulling out all the stops to bail Greece out of its debt crisis?
It’s damage control after a progress trap. The whole system is a progress trap – that false belief and blind faith in the idea of growth. The vision of economic progress – that the only way out of poverty, out of debt, out of unemployment is more growth. That’s a fallacy. What’s totally sick, and an illusion, are the conditions that the IMF and the European Central Bank are giving Greece – that they need to cut all social programs. It’s not going to solve the problem, and it’s fueling this cycle, this pattern of bailouts. Greece can’t cut any more social programs, and we’re seeing people take to the streets in the same way that people in Occupy Movements across North America are doing so, to protest against this neo-liberal ideology of less social programs, less taxes for the rich, and the hope that by deregulating, there’ll be more investment. That’s a fallacy and it has to stop.
The Chen family, Beijing (Surviving Progress)
I recently listened to an interview with filmmaker Werner Herzog, who was discussing his latest doc [Into the Abyss], about prisoners on death row. The interviewer asked Herzog whether he thought movies could ever bring about meaningful change, to which the German director promptly responded that movies are merely entertainment, and that it would be ludicrous to think that films can actually ‘make a difference’. What’s your take on that, on whether a film like yours could ever affect change?
Werner is one of my favourite filmmakers, but I’ve known his work and ideas for a while. He’s pretty pessimistic and cynical, pro-chaos, and talks about how nature is this fierce, pitiless force and that chaos is the only rule of the universe. I mean, that’s a point of view. That being said, I think that within the chaos of our lives, the trifling sum of our actions as human beings, we can still try to organize human life and society in a way that is fair. It shouldn’t be seen as utopian to aim to engage with and reflect on your society through documentaries. I’m living proof: a number of documentaries have moved, outraged and helped me want to keep discussing these issues so that we actually see some change. I still want to believe that we can change, not the world, because that’s become a cliché, but the way we do politics, and the way we plan our society for the future.
Sao Paulo cityscape (Surviving Progress)
Martin Scorsese, whom you first worked with on The Aviator as his personal assistant, came on board the film as an executive producer. What kind of advice did he provide?
I visited him on the set of The Departed at some point, with the book. I explained to him that the project was being offered to me to direct, to adapt it into a documentary, He read the book in a few hours, found it fascinating, and offered his help as an executive producer. Then a few months later, I had a few meetings with him, just brainstorming, about how to create a narrative for this documentary.
Marty has already done a lot of research on Rome, because he’s passionate about history, and he did that film about Jesus Christ. We talked about the Roman Empire for hours… Then he saw a few different cuts over the course of the editing process and gave Harold and I very specific notes about rhythm. He’s got a 12-year-old daughter, and he’s worried about these issues.
Surviving Progress | Now in theatres | survivingprogress.com
International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) | November 16 to 27 | idfa.nl
Semaine du Québec à Paris (SODEC) | November 15 to 19