‘Surviving Progress’ tackles a global question
Montreal-based director Mathieu Roy is not afraid of tackling huge and existential questions within the wrapper of an 86-minute documentary.
That he begins “Surviving Progress” with a primate confronting a geometric curiosity – in the case a block it must balance for the payout of a banana – Roy knowingly evokes Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and warns us we’re in Big Think territory. In this case, “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, so important and so troubling.
“It took six and a half years to make the best film we could,” said 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 pissed.”
The film, with executive producing by luminaries such as Mark Achbar (“The Corporation”) and Martin Scorcese (whom Roy worked for on “The Aviator”), the film is a chilling omnibus of Wall Street misdeeds, environmental plunder, and cultures in collision. Its ambition is an example of what the best documentaries do, which is unflinching truth. It kind of started that way.
“Harold and I didn’t want to scare off our producers and distributors!” Roy said of the early phases. “But the opening movement from a chimp to an astronaut 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.”
Starting with the inspiration of the book “A Short History of Progress,” by Candadian author Ronald Wright, and it reveals the ultimate plot twist: Have we become so productive 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 rain forest of Brazil to the “new” China (with a priceless open-camera argument between a tourism-business son and his Communist-era professor father 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 is infused with imagery that makes it a worthy journey. Roy says 100 hours of primary footage was supported by edits out of another 100 hours of secondary and archival footage, conducted at the hands of editor Louis-Martin Paradis. One quirky aside was the primary interview subject looking dead-on at the viewer, made possible by the EyeLiner, which in turn comes from Errol Morris’s Interratron.
The film was shot on HD tape, and funded by $1.8 million mostly due to Achbar’s Telefilm Canada-funded “performance envelope”: The success of “The Corporation” success set aside funds for the exclusive use of Achbar’s production company, Big Picture Media Corporation. Achbar, in turn, moved those funds in support of “Surviving Progress.”
“Mark had other projects, so the envelope funding supported four separate film projects,” Roy said.
Scorcese’s contribution was not funding, but mentoring. “He looked at cuts and sent me notes, because he just supports projects he likes.”
The film, especially as it explicates on 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 luached a short time later.
“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.”