Surviving Progress looks for a major change
Surviving Progress is a stylishly provocative exploration of the crises humans have created through our own actions, mostly in the name of “improving” life. Opening here Friday (December 2), the film is largely based on Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, which views our smart-ass species as a science experiment gone wrong.
Veteran writer, consultant, and filmmaker Harold Crooks began working on the project about four years ago, and he felt an existential kinship when he visited Manhattan just after the Occupy Wall Street movement began and right before debuting his new documentary at the Vancouver International Film Festival.
“What an amazing scene,” Crooks recalls upon meeting with the Georgia Straight at a downtown hotel during the fest. “I was actually there to look at the possibility of projecting our film on the site somewhere, and it was, as you can imagine, a rather anarchistic environment, with no one really in charge. The first person I spoke with—her name was Ketchup—was one of the five people I randomly talked to right away, and they were all familiar with The Corporation.”
The filmmaker had also helped write that seminal 2003 doc about the role of large, international (but preponderantly American) conglomerates in ruining modern life. An easygoing fellow with grey, curly hair, Crooks is an award-winning expert on the global management of waste—a growth topic if ever there was one. That area certainly informs his work on films like Bhopal: The Search for Justice and last year’s Pax Americana and the Weaponization of Space, which posits that stratospheric garbage may pose a graver threat than nuclear warheads.
The new movie—his first directing job—looks at (among other things) the many ways financial institutions contribute to the rot. The unfettered scams, bubbles, and Ponzi schemes make him yearn for the years when Franklin Delano Roosevelt—the most potent U.S. president of the past hundred years—rode roughshod over banks and busted up corporate monopolies.
“We need to go back to FDR, who used to talk openly about ‘the great malefactors of Wall Street’. And maybe we’ll get there.”
At this point in the conversation, Crooks’s codirector, Mathieu Roy, arrives and asks if we know what’s going on in New York.
“Radiohead is supposed to be playing in Zuccotti Park this afternoon,” he announces.
“It’s changing rapidly,” Crooks continues. “When I was there, it was the usual demographic, but today I saw a photo of 700 uniformed airline pilots. At first I thought it must be a spoof, but now I see the labour unions are joining, so it’s really happening.”
“Unfortunately, you don’t learn anything about this in the New York Times,” the younger, sandy-haired Roy rejoins, “only in the alternative media.”
That’s the weirdly bifurcated environment—lots of big things happening with almost no mainstream recognition—into which this movie was born, when Montrealer Roy was handed Wright’s book by fellow Quebecer François Girard (The Red Violin). Roy assisted Martin Scorsese on The Aviator and he got the famed auteur to read the book and enter the discussion. Scorsese came aboard as executive producer, but it was Vancouver doc maven Mark Achbar, a Corporation codirector, who suggested that Roy hook up with Crooks.
“As chance would have it,” Roy explains, “we started shooting on the weekend of September 13, 2008, just as the major collapse on Wall Street began.”
“We immediately had to rejig the whole thing,” Crooks says, “centring it around what Wright calls ‘casino capitalism’: unrestrained markets, rampant deregulation, careless privatization. That eventually led us to discover a fellow named Michael Hudson and what he calls ‘debt pollution’.”
“Of course, the whole mania for deregulation began with Ronald Reagan,” Roy asserts, “and that’s when the income gap really got out of control.” That’s also, you could say, when the left-right dialectic traded places, with conservatives embracing “progress” at any cost and progressives crying “whoa” at each new megadevelopment.
“This connects with what Mathieu and I found in Ronald Wright’s book,” Crooks continues. “Ideological pathologies are received by citizens and, in his view, these were major contributing factors in bringing down whole civilizations. So the question becomes, ‘What’s the central ideological pathology of our time?’ ”
As the resulting film puts forward, growth-obsessed (or “developed”) nations have bullied or brainwashed poorer countries into believing they can lift themselves out of poverty by exploiting natural resources through massive projects involving damming, clear-cutting, and drilling. The stigmatization of subsistence farming in favour of cheap industrial manufacturing, for example, has essentially emptied out rich rural areas of China and India. In this scenario, people starve as greenhouse-gas production goes up.
“I don’t know the way out of that,” Roy admits. “I am far worse, in some ways, than someone struggling for a middle-class existence in one of these countries because I consume even more resources. Of course, if you are a filmmaker working on these documentaries, it’s very hard not to travel. How do you have a small carbon footprint and still reach a lot of people? I mean, seriously, we talked about doing it all by Skype. Does getting the message out require our presence at every film festival that invites us? I really don’t know.”
Among its many talking heads, including the likes of David Suzuki, Jane Goodall, and Margaret Atwood, Surviving Progress includes advocates of frugal living, although it’s hard to see how much effect the Zen-lifestyle approach can have against, say, soil-polluting agri-monsters and rapacious fisheries. At the same time, reason itself is increasingly swamped by the irrationality of everyday groupthink, as increasingly sensationalistic media keep people angry and confused. And big companies enjoy what could be called the Halliburton Effect: that is, there’s no calamity so big that it can’t be exploited financially, with every debacle (i.e., the Iraq War) generating lucrative windfalls beyond any kind of oversight (i.e., $100 hamburgers for the troops). No wonder Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, in their post–George W. Bush memoirs, are convinced they made no mistakes.
“Cheney was famous for, among other things,” Crooks adds, “insisting that deficits don’t matter. That has been thoroughly disproved in the past few years as we see the whole western world sliding towards a giant cliff where debt issues are concerned.”
You’d never know that from the current political climate, however, Crooks explains. “Rupert Murdoch and Fox News have basically fuelled this whole Tea Party movement, although it is essentially self-defeating. The Republicans are totally in thrall to Wall Street, and now they’ve empowered all these nut jobs who have hijacked the primary process, ensuring that only the most extreme clowns will be vying to run for president. Even so, I believe we’re living at a planetary moment. If you go from the Arab Spring to Greece to Occupy Wall Street, it adds up to a kind of demand for change on small and large scales. I mean, there are transformational moments in history when people become open to some kind of real paradigm shift. The status quo will not hold. The only question is, what will replace it?”
“Lots of my friends in Montreal are in finance,” Roy says. “They watch movies like Inside Job with me and they are as outraged as I am. So I feel like there’s some hope in every area.”
This takes us back to the notion of basic regulation. No power system, Montreal stockbrokers included, modifies itself without external force, and when even the most basic rules are ignored or, worse, shelved entirely—well, that’s how we got where we are today.
“Thus the incredible disappointment with Obama,” Crooks concludes. “He was supposed to do something about all this and he didn’t. In the end, we may have to go through something much, much worse before we get our 21st-century FDR.”
Watch the trailer for Surviving Progress.