Are We ‘Surviving Progress’?

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The documentary Surviving Progress begins with a primate confronting a geometric curiosity — it must balance a block for the payout of a banana. Director Mathieu Roy knowingly evokes Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and signals to the audience that we’re heading into “Big Think” territory. In this case, the film is asking, “Has the human race progressed so remarkably that we’re about to put ourselves out of existence?”

With so many wonderful documentaries taking the macro view of issues and questions (I just again viewed Danfung Dennis’s remarkable Hell and Back Again and its story of a war through one man’s journey), it’s yet again heartening to see a director (along with co-director Harold Crooks) take on something so massive and so potentially troubling.

The film is a chilling omnibus of Wall Street misdeeds, environmental plunder and cultures in collision, executive produced by some big names in the doc world, including Martin Scorsese (for whom Roy was an assistant on The Aviator) and Mark Achbar (of the Canadian-produced doc hits The Corporation and Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media).

Its ambition is an example of what the best documentaries do, which is exposing unflinching truth.

“It took six and a half years to make the best film we could,” said the Montreal-based Roy, as his project goes into release. “We thought at time, ‘Should we take it a bit easier on the audience? But this is the way the world works, and when you learn it, you do feel more [peeved].’”

“Harold and I didn’t want to scare off our producers and distributors,” Roy said of the early phases of producing Surviving Progress. “But the opening movement [with the chimp] sets the tone. What took so long was that it became an effort to make a coherent structure. The more the film unfolded itself, the more it became a bigger snowball.”

With inspiration from the book A Short History of Progress by author Ronald Wright, the film reveals the ultimate plot twist: Have we become so productive that our consumption is killing the planet? Has medicine become so remarkable we don’t know what to do with the booming population? Has the lust for progress itself sent us hurtling into the ultimate regress?

The film takes us from such far-flung places as the rainforest of Brazil to the “new” China (with a priceless open-camera argument between a father and son, a Communist-era professor and a businessman sitting on their sofa); it brings in people as diverse as primatologist Jane Goodall to economist Michael Hudson, a chorus of voices saying all is not well, and American Idol isn’t going to fix it.

Documentaries such as this make for hard viewing in one way, but it is infused with imagery that makes it a worthy journey. The film was edited (by Louis-Martin Paradis) using 100 additional hours of archival and secondary video, and 100 hours of primary video shot on HD tape with the interview subject looking dead-on at the viewer — made possible by the EyeLiner, which in turn comes from Errol Morris’s Interrotron.

The film was funded with $1.8 million of “envelope funding” thanks to Telefilm Canada and based on the success of Achbar’s The Corporation. Scorsese’s contribution was not funding, but mentoring. “He looked at cuts and sent me notes, because he just supports projects he likes,” Roy said.

The film, especially as it explicates Wall Street’s shark-like affinities to accumulate money to degrees that go to the greater detriment, premiered at Toronto Film Festival last September, but it may have caught a zeitgeist. The Occupy Wall Street movement took hold later that month.

“I thought, after what I learned in making the film, ‘Why aren’t people coming out on the streets about this?’” Roy said.

“And then they did.”

Surviving Progress opens in New York City today (Friday, April 6, 2012) before playing in Los Angeles and other select cities in April and May. Find out more about screenings at survivingprogress.com.

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Edward J. Delaney
Edward J. Delaney
Edward J. Delaney is a journalist, author, filmmaker and editor of DocumentaryTech, an online project that explores documentary filmmaking techniques and technology.