Surviving Progress

Director: Mathieu Roy, Harold Crooks
Writer: Harold Crooks, Mathieu Roy
Year: 2011
Cast: Ronald Wright, David Suzuki, Vaclav Smil

★★★★☆

The most worrying thing about documentaries like Surviving Progress is that they are not only still relevant, but more relevant than ever. There is an overwhelming sense that we should know this stuff already. Yet, here we are, thirty years down the line from Koyaanisqatsi, and we appear to have learned very little, apart from the enduring effectiveness of time-lapse photography. We still consume too much, we are still driven by unquenchable material desires and we are still unable to grasp the bigger picture. Far from being addressed, these problems are escalating. Life is increasingly out of balance.

However, this documentary, co-directed by Harold Crooks and Mathieu Roy, does not simply set out to cover old ground. Instead, it approaches the problem from a different angle, incorporating and centralising the most devastating implications of the 2008 financial crisis. The film’s essential thesis is that the global economy is constructed on unsustainable levels of debt, all of which is essentially owed to those at the very top of the financial ladder – the 1% to use contemporary terminology. Creditors must be paid, which means debtors are forced to exploit every resource at their disposal, until there are no resources left.

Surviving Progress Sao Paolo

One of the title frames terms this process “digging holes”, which is a succinct way of putting it. The clearest example comes from the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. The narrative goes that during the 1970s, Brazil accumulates debt that it is unable to pay off using conventional methods. It is encouraged to turn to natural sources of wealth, particularly the untapped rainforest. The devastation will have no impact on foreign creditors – to them, it is just like any other asset on Brazil’s balance sheet. If and when it is exhausted, there are plenty of other holes to dig. However, it is not simply a matter of foreign exploitation, as local people are complicit in the destruction. But they too have debts to pay. It is hard not to sympathise with the loggers who are prepared to break conservation laws to stay in business. Deforestation is the local economy – without it, people will starve.

“Conventional economics,” proclaims environmentalist David Suzuki, “is a form of brain damage” and it is difficult in this context to argue with him. By externalising reality, the discipline becomes little more than a systematic fantasy. Humanity’s collective debt cannot be self-contained; it cannot flow harmlessly between individuals, corporations and nations. Inevitably, it must spill over into the natural world. And if our debt to the planet becomes irrevocable, no amount of Wall Street wizardry is going to prevent a catastrophe.

Surviving Progress makes this point effectively, drawing on the ideas of a range of interesting contributors, including Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking and Ronald Wright, who wrote the book the film was based on.  Its scope is impressive, incorporating history, politics, science and economics, but, ultimately, it fails when it comes to putting forward solutions. The problem, as Wright acknowledges, is that nobody wants to talk about the realities of doing what needs to be done. Synthetic biology and space exploration are put forward as viable alternatives, but practically they only represent further holes. Vaclav Smil is the most impressive speaker in this regard, distinguished by his ability to get to the point, albeit after an amusing digression on $50,000 bathrooms. We must consume less. We have to balance the books before it is too late.

Koyaanisqatsi Moon

Image from Koyaanisqatsi

The terrifying problem lingering below the documentary’s surface is that progress has become self-perpetuating. There is no logical get out, which means we are no longer in charge of our own destiny. Globalisation has left us with a single socio-economic reality that we are unable to transform without devastating consequences. It is easy to say we must consume less, but who is doing it and how on earth could they?

I have not discussed the film in great detail because the ideas are more important. It is entertaining, well-directed and suitably but not overly derivative of Koyaanisqatsi. There are some beautiful shots, especially of Sao Paulo. And what is it about time-lapse that lends itself so well to this kind of film? It is able to show humanity in the macrocosm. It effortlessly renders us absurd.

Rob Dickie

Surviving Progress was screened as part of the 2012 Take One Action film festival in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Director: Lasse Hallström
Writer: Simon Beaufoy, Paul Torday (novel)
Year: 2011
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas

★★☆☆☆

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is one of those films that could easily be a metaphor for its own production. You can imagine the guy pitching it: “I want to make a film about a Sheikh who tries to bring salmon fishing to the Yemen?” “A film about salmon fishing in the Yemen?! That’s absurd! How? Why?” “Purely because it’s absurd. That’s the beauty of it. It will work, have faith. Just to make sure, we’ll throw in a complicated romantic quadrangle, a just-about-still-topical political angle and enough charm to prevent people just sitting there shaking their heads in disbelief. Trust me.”

It begins with the beautifully named Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) approaching Dr Alfred “Fred” Jones (Ewan McGregor), a government fisheries expert, with a proposal for constructing a river in the Yemeni desert and transporting 10,000 wild salmon from British rivers so her client, the Sheikh (Amr Waked), can fish. Fred naturally ridicules the idea, but, under pressure from the Prime Minister and his dogged press secretary (Kristin Scott Thomas), both desperate for a feel-good story from the Middle East, he agrees to meet Harriet and discuss the project. Before he knows it, everything is in motion and he begins to chase after the impossible.

It sounds like it should have been a political satire, like the novel by Paul Torday it was based on. It does have satirical undertones, but they are far too tame to be taken seriously. The war in Afghanistan is treated soberly, but nothing else comes close to being a target – Anglo-Middle Eastern relations, the Prime Minister’s shameless PR efforts and even terrorist attacks are only ever lighthearted asides or superficial plot developments. Kristin Scott Thomas gives a vibrant and engaging performance, but her character is just a glamorised Malcolm Tucker, without the depth of character or genuine sense of being under pressure.

Lasse Hallström clearly opts against making a satire, instead using the story as a vehicle for the kind of feel-good film he is known for (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat). Quite what there is to feel good about in an oil-rich Sheikh’s decadent vanity project is not immediately clear, though Hallström extracts as much as is humanly possible from the grand folly of it all. The main point of interest is the relationship between Fred and Harriet, which has the effect of transforming the salmon project into an overly figurative backdrop. McGregor and Blunt have enough chemistry to make it work, and you would probably end up rooting for them if there was even the slightest hint they might not end up together.

The one area the film does succeed in is the comedy, which draws plenty of laughs all the way through. It is very British in character, exploiting Fred’s reserve, eccentricity and awkward attempts at telling jokes. There are some excellent lines and very funny moments, which makes it a shame that the rest of the film does not support it.

Aside from humour, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen offers little, and the elaborate project it is built around seems wasted. It takes you from London to Scotland to the Yemen but, while this offers aesthetic variety, you get the feeling that the essential story could just as easily have taken place in a New York office. The plot is clumsy, with too many arbitrary developments and emotional twists, particularly towards the end. It tries to be stupidly charming but ends up more charmingly stupid, and only that because the leads are able to inject some comic life into a film which was always likely to fail.

Rob Dickie

In the Loop

Director: Armando Iannucci
Writer: Armando Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche
Year: 2009
Cast: Peter Capaldi, Chris Addison, Tom Hollander

★★★★☆

In the Loop is an excellent British comedy, which satirises the political machinations that lead to a declaration of war. It is based on a television series, The Thick of It, which I have not actually seen. The film in no way suffers for it, and I understand that it is supposed to stand entirely alone. Armando Iannucci, along with his fellow writers, picked up a fully-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, and it was good to see him get that kind of recognition.

The lyricism of the script, and the delivery of the lines, is brilliant. Swearing so prolifically is rarely done and has never sounded so good. Peter Capaldi’s character, Malcolm Tucker, is wonderful in this respect, swearing relentlessly, but doing it with such creativity that it becomes an art-form. Capaldi is a good actor too, and gets the chance to demonstrate plenty of depth as the story progresses.

The entire cast give strong performances, but the main protagonists are Toby Wright (Chris Addison), who plays a junior advisor with plenty of connections, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), a Cabinet minister, who is best described as Clegg-esque (co-incidentally, as the film was made well before anyone really knew who Nick Clegg was), the peace-loving General George Miller (James Gandolfini), and Linton Barwick (David Rasche), a senior US politician, who is politely demanding a war. The characters come together, pushing in different directions, towards or against the war to different extents.

Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker

It makes for a brilliant political farce, as we are shown how the most minor characters and unimportant members of government can become embroiled in key decisions with global implications. Simon Foster is one of the most important actors in all of this, invited into the argument because of a gaffe made on a local radio station that brings him into line with the thinking of the anti-war crowd in Washington. It is great to watch him attempt to deal with the unexpected responsibility; one of the film’s genuine laugh-out-loud moments occurs when he is called upon to divulge his opinion to a crowded room and can only say the situation is “difficult, difficult, lemon difficult”.

The contrasts between the British and American way of doing things is also well put together, and the contrasting pressures from inside the constituency and the wider political world are well-drawn. Unfortunately, Steve Coogan’s role as an irate member of Foster’s constituency is a distraction. He seems a little unreal and comic, while the other characters are played dead straight. It’s a minor problem, but breaks the spell a little.

The film looks good, showing a political environment without much glamour. The visuals have a documentary feel, away from the pomp you would normally associate with political drama. It is a style which matches the message. Like all good satire, the film is made with an angle, but it is not in the least bit overbearing. We can think about it, or simply laugh at it. Both are good reasons to watch it. Another is the wonderful image of James Gandolfini calculating, on a pink toy computer, the number of soldiers that will be die as a result of the decision to go to war.

Rob Dickie