China’s one-fingered artist

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

• It’s easy to forget that many Chinese teenagers know nothing about the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989; just ask any young Chinese immigrant to Vancouver. Given China’s huge and fast-growing economic and military power, there’s ongoing pressure for it to open up, but as documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry reveals, freedom of speech is a long way off.

Portrait of Ai WeiWei creating a circular piece of art
Ai Weiwei. Courtesy of Mongrel Media.

Activist-artist Ai came to prominence when having designed the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, he denounced the 2008 Olympics as an “empty event,” certainly not for the poor people evicted from the stadium site. The burly artist has been a constant thorn in the side of the PRC, holding up his trademark middle finger to the government’s censorship regime. Propelled by his social media activities and his brash wit, Ai has earned superstar status. “Beijing’s Andy Warhol” has held celebrated exhibitions in London and Munich and been feted by the media worldwide.

Director Alison Klayman’s intimate portrait charts Ai’s recent activity until his disappearance last year, when he was held in secret detention for 81 days by the police as part of measures to pre-empt a Chinese Spring. The documentary captures Ai very much in his milieu, whether touring with his entourage (lots of meals) or working the net in his Beijing studio surrounded by his cats. He is a physically large and indomitable presence with a disarming humility and frankness when talking about his life and work. We meet his proud mom who worries to tears despite Ai’s soothing noises about her boy’s brushes with the authorities. His wife talks briefly and the appearance of his illegitimate infant son later in the film gives rise to some memorable shots of him in the field of porcelain sunflower seeds installation at London’s Tate Modern.

Ai’s response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake – an event that initially left him “speechless” – is at the heart of Klayman’s film. When the Chinese government refused to acknowledge that thousands of children died when “tofu-”constructed schools collapsed on top of them, Ai supporters went from village to village building a list of 5,835 victims. Ai distributed the list online and covered a huge wall of the Haus der Kunst in Munich with brightly coloured satchels spelling out the words of a mother of a quake victim: “She lived happily for seven years in this world.”

The police seem never far away, watching and documenting on camera. Ai’s response is to document back. When assaulted during a police night raid, he creates a firestorm of protest with a photo sent out via Twitter. When he subsequently has emergency surgery for a cerebral haemorrhage, he shares a series of photographs of himself from his Munich hospital bed captioned with stoic wit. Later, when the authorities decide to destroy his Shanghai studio on a flimsy pretext, Ai lampoons the injustice by turning the occasion into an open-invitation party serving crab – “crab” being synonymous with “censorship.”

As Ai suggests, he’s like a chess player, except the rules of this game keep changing. Given the pressure, Ai’s calm resilience is impressive, something the doc traces, in part, to his boyhood experience of his poet father’s humiliations and his years as a student in New York, as much as his bullish personality. Klayman’s achievement is in providing a detailed depiction of how China suppresses dissent and how one man has become such a potent voice of resistance, as the David and Goliath battle continues to play out across a kaleidoscopic media landscape.

Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.

Something old, something new

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

 

Take This Waltz movie
Michelle Williams and Luke Kirby in Take This Waltz

Love, sex, fidelity and relationships – this is the stuff of Toronto-set Take This Waltz, a bittersweet, sensuous romance from actress-director Sarah Polley. The story is a dance of desire and will, as sweet, 28-year-old copyrighter Margot (versatile performance by Michelle Williams) is torn between her love for her husband Lou (a bearish Seth Rogen) and a developing attraction for her flirtatious artist neighbour Daniel (the sunny Luke Kirby).

“New things get old,” remarks one of the characters in a naked shower scene – a lingering shot of female bods across the generations making the point more stark. While this salutary warning on relationships is impending throughout, Polley also seduces with soft sensuality, from the opening scene of baking cupcakes barefoot, to a writhing underwater dance between two lovers in a pool.

Some of the dialogue – particularly the intimate husband-and-wife banter – takes time to grow on you. It took a long time to believe Lou and Margot were ever in love, for instance, but there’s lots of fodder here for lively, post-film discussion, plus a great scene on a waltzer ride to The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star.

Director Jonathan Demme is perhaps best known for The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Stop Making Sense and Neil Young concert films. Demme’s third documentary about the grizzled rocker, Neil Young Journeys, captures the last two nights of Young’s Le Noise world tour at Toronto’s Massey Hall.

The film, opening July 13, features classics such as Ohio and Hey Hey, My My as well as previously unreleased work like Leia and You Never Call. Demme intercuts on-stage performances with Young’s own musings on his life and upbringing, as he drives from his hometown of Omemee, Ontario to downtown Toronto.

Following his success with Midnight in Paris (see review in June 2011 edition), Woody Allen takes another European jaunt in To Rome With Love (opening July 6). A cast of US and local stars set down in the Italian capital for a series of romantic escapades. Allen himself appears on screen in one of the collection of stories, as does Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page. The Canadian publicist asked media not to post reviews before the movie comes out, which is rarely a good sign, not to mention fairly pointless in the internet age. But early reviews suggest a frivolous, enjoyable movie that is typical Allen, although not his best.

Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.

Funny and foreign

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

 

Two young men transport belongings on a motdobikeFrom Where Do We Go Now? Left to right: Roukoz (Ali Haidar) and Nassim (Kevin Abboud). Photo by Rudy Bou Chebel ©, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Two foreign language comedies out this month give Hollywood a run for its money with feel-good crowd-pleasers. First to Paris. The Intouchables is a buddy story, pairing a paraplegic aristocrat with a North African immigrant from one of the city’s projects.

On first impression, Driss (rising star Omar Sy) is an unlikely candidate for the job of upper crust caregiver. An ex con, untrained in nursing, he’s just looking for a signed rejection slip so that he can claim his unemployment benefit. However, when Driss bursts into the office of wheel chair-bound Philippe rather than wait his turn for the interview, he ends up being trialled for the job.

Philippe, whose injuries come from a hang-gliding accident, warms to the younger man’s direct attitude and crude humour, a breath of fresh air in the luxurious but stuffy household. With echoes of Trading Places, the film plays on cultural differences epitomized by their taste in music – one likes Vivaldi, the other Earth, Wind & Fire – and also with predictable differences towards fine art, opera and romance.

The Intouchableswas a huge hit in France. Its brand of feel-good humour feels manufactured for the masses. While it relies on upturning cultural stereotypes, it does so by first reinforcing a multitude of stereotypes.

There are some duff lines, like Philippe’s over-flowery prose in a love letter-writing scene or a clunky montage showing caregiver applicants in too cynical a light for dramatic effect. But while the script often lacks subtlety, the two leads make up for it with superb performances as the odd-couple: François Cluzet, expressing an impressive range of emotions in the role of a man paralyzed from the neck down, makes a good sparring partner for the charismatic Omar Sy’s bad boy antics. It’s this chemistry that makes it worth watching.

If women were in charge, the world would be less violent. That’s the implication of Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now? (the meaning of the title is clear at the end), with a storyline that mashes sombre comedy, tragedy and choreographed musical.

The setting is a remote, sun-bleached village in the Middle East where the church and mosque stand side by side. Geographically unspecific, the village is surrounded by landmines and accessible only by a damaged bridge. Reception for the village’s one television is spotty and newspaper delivery unreliable.

With a dusty graveyard full of young men, the Christian and Muslim women conspire to keep volatile male tempers from flaring through all sorts of bizarre ruses, ranging from feigning miracles to distracting them with a truckload of blonde, Ukrainian strippers.

It’s an unusual treatment of religious tension, veering from farcical comedy to tragedy. Labaki clearly wants it to be real, showing how violence begets grief and even curtailing her own character’s blossoming, inter-faith romance. But the switches in style and tone sometimes make you think you are watching different movies. A choreographed funeral march where a group of women clutching photos of their loved ones beat their chests in unison, is arrestingly cinematic. As I left the cinema, I found myself humming the catchy hashish song, written by Labaki’s husband, which the ensemble of women perform during an exuberant bake scene. The parts do not add up to a greater whole, but it has some enjoyable moments.

Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.

DOXA Reviews

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

• The annual documentary festival DOXA is on this month. The Vancouver fest is hosting 72 screenings across five different venues from May 4 to 13. DOXA opens with the NFB Digital Studio’s interactive documentary Bear 71, which makes extensive use of surveillance footage of an electronically tagged grizzly in Banff National Park. The film also challenges conventions about documentary presentation itself. You can find it at nfb.ca.

Photos: Christened “Bear 71” at age three, a mother grizzly was under lifelong surveilance by motion detection cameras

While technology is a recurring theme of DOXA this year, Vinylmania: When Life Runs at 33 Revolutions Per Minute is an enjoyable delve into the retro world of record collecting in the digital age. A snappily edited and tuneful ode to platters, it joins vinyl obsessives from Prague, Tokyo, San Francisco and London. Of course, the analogue versus vinyl argument crops up, but this is not just about records ‘sounding better.’ Vinyl has a look, feel and a smell. Character. Vinylmania reveals some extreme cases of collecting, but musical montages and entertaining interviews help one appreciate why vinyl warms the parts that digital can’t reach.

Austrian cinema has a reputation for relentless, but resonant bleakness. Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s 88-minute documentary Abendland, filmed only at night, fits that bill. In a series of long takes, Geyrhalter’s unobtrusive camera builds a vision of a modern dystopia, from babies born into hospital incubators, to a crematorium worker operating a coffin conveyor and a crane. As countryman Erwin Wagenhofer did so well in his critique of the food industry We Feed the World, Abendland provides a stark, but salutary, warning about the de-humanizing aspects of our mechanized, always-on society. Watching airport toilet cleaners, CCTV operators, online sex workers or a night patrol officer at work, I found myself wanting more narrative infill than the disciplined, observational style allowed. But the patiently framed scenes and juxtapositions – such as rowdy bonhomie in a huge beer hall followed by a drunken reveller passed out on a hospital trolley – convey a deep sense of malaise about this brilliantly lit world.

After that, Tahrir-Liberation Square is like a step back in time. Since the Arab Spring started in January 2011, Tahrir Square has become a symbol of revolution, inspiring similar events across the world, including the Occupy movement. The spirit of the Egyptian spring is vividly captured in Tahrir-Liberation Square, a street level account of the days that led to the overthrow of Egyptian tyrant Hosni Mubarak. Shot handheld, the film sets you down so deeply in the thick of revolutionary Tahrir Square, you can almost smell the sweat, tobacco and fire smoke. Chants provide an ongoing soundtrack to the uprising with many intimate shots of jubilant protestors bouncing up and down calling, “The Egyptians are here! The Egyptians are here!” and similar slogans.

The absence of a narrative lends a certain fluidity to the action and like any participant, you sometimes must piece together unfolding events through fragments of information. You also get a sense of the motivations and tensions among participants – liberals fearing Islamists’ motives, women seeking more rights. With tensions rising in Egypt again, this is a timely piece.

The festival closes with Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a portrait of the Chinese subversive artist. In particular, it follows Weiwei’s battle with government censorship when documenting the deaths of 5,000 schoolchildren, killed in the 2008 Sichuan Province earthquake. With talk of a Chinese spring, this will be one to watch. (www.doxafestival.ca)

Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.

In the beginning

Journey of the Universe co-writer Brian Thomas Swimme

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

• Given that recent polls suggest that around 40 percent of Americans believe that God created human beings in their present form 10,000 years ago, some people might consider Journey of the Universe quite a radical documentary. This story of the universe, which has screened on PBS, starts around 14 billion years ago with the Big Bang and it doesn’t talk explicitly about God. However, from start to finish, its enthusiastic narrator Brian Thomas Swimme shares his sense of awe at the miracle, and sometimes the mystery, of life – how life came into being and how we learned and adapted.

 

Swimme, who co-wrote the script with Yale University historian of religions Mary Evelyn Tucker, maintains a firmly evolutionary approach, yet at the same time conveys a deep sense of our interconnectedness with the universe and the planet that has borne us. “We are genetic cousins to every living being,” says the white-haired Swimme, as he wanders around the sun drenched Greek island of Naxos, stomping ground of the mathematician Pythagoras. He marvels, as his hero did, at the connection between life and patterns: “Is all life being organized?” he asks. Physics, genetics and anthropology are used to illustrate how we are “participants in a vast intricate system that is something like a living cell.”

In the best popular science way, this ambitious doc is backed up by some impressive visuals – CGIs of dinosaurs, space footage, deft image compositing – as Swimme brings us up to present day with a message about our social and ecological responsibilities. Journey of the Universe has a public screening on April 25 at the Canadian Memorial Church in Vancouver (www.canadianmemorial.org) and a panel discussion follows.

Family-friendly One Life (out now) looks at the cool strategies animals have developed to survive. The smooth tones of narrator Daniel Craig pull together dependably gorgeous footage from BBC Earth, featuring normally solitary cheetahs that work as a team, the tool-using prowess of capuchin monkeys, a colony of ants that farms and the fishing magic of Florida dolphins. Enjoyable, although episodic.

The annual Reel 2 Real International Film Festival for Youth returns to Vancity Theatre (April 13-20) with films covering difficult themes such as bullying, suicide, divorce and poverty. One film I can recommend is On the Sly (A Pas de Loup), a drama depicting childhood alienation, but treated in an original and humorous way. The story centres around a six-year-old, who, to test her theory that she’s invisible to her parents, slips into the forest where her solitary adventures begin. I saw the dubbed version, which, in spite of my misgivings, probably didn’t make a huge amount of difference, as the film is mostly an interior monologue seen through the child’s eyes. You hear rather than see the adults, except for the backs of heads and legs. It’s a child’s world, but grown-ups should enjoy it too. Even the ambiguous ending teases with possibilities.

Finally, a viewing of the documentary White Water, Black Gold reminded me why passions are running so high over Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipelines Project. Debut director David Lavallee travels to the Tar Sands water source at Snow Dome mountain where glaciers are in rapid retreat. Following the flow to the cancer hotspot of Fort Chipewyan, he discovers some seriously lax environmental protection and that when water meets tar, “truth is liquid.”

Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.

Putting the love in revolution

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

 

• On March 17, it will be six months since the beginning of Occupy Wall Street and the subsequent cascade of grassroots occupations that followed across the Western world. Two local filmmakers who have been documenting the Occupy movement – from the Arab Spring, through Zuccotti Park to the Vancouver Art Gallery – are philosopher-filmmaker Velcrow Ripper and Port Moody-based Ian MacKenzie. Their online series of inspirational thought pieces and vignettes captures the diversity and idealism of the Occupy movement in its most intoxicating form. The pieces are just the appetizers for the main course, Occupy Love, which is the third documentary feature in a trilogy. It started with the award-winning Scared Sacred, in which Velcrow Ripper tried to find hope in the ground zeros of the world; subsequently, in Fierce Light he recognized the awesome potency of non-violent protest and Occupy Love, he says, will answer the question “How are the economic and ecological crises we are facing today a great love story?”

The film is due for theatrical release later this year, but the film’s gestation has been a shared social media activity. Occupy Love just raised $53,000 through the crowd-funding website indiegogo.com to help complete the film and its ideas have been seeded in pithy, short videos. Check out Occupy Wall Street – The Revolution Is Love (it’s only five minutes) where MacKenzie melds an articulate monologue by Sacred Economics author Charles Eisenstein with intriguing visuals of Occupy participants. It’s a wake-up call. Our monetarist system is failing us. “What we want to create is the more beautiful world that our hearts tell us is possible. A sacred world,” says Eisenstein.

Eisenstein’s latest, the 13-minute Sacred Economics (online from March 1), elaborates more on his thesis that we are evolving a new, holistic “story of self” in our relationship with others and the planet, having realized that aggressive individualism and the commodification of nature and community are a source of loneliness and unhappiness. Our monetarist system weakens, reduces and impoverishes us. “We’re nearing the end of growth,” he adds. “That’s why the crisis that we have today won’t go away.”

I’m not sure how much it resonates with Jennifer Baichwal’s Payback (out on March 23), which is based on Margaret Atwood’s 2008 Massey Lectures book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/massey-lectures/) I haven’t seen the film yet, but with local ecological footprint inventor Bill Rees featured among the five separate stories, the debt in question is clearly not just a financial affair.

With hearings on the Northern Gateway pipeline joint review panel underway, it’s also a good time to revisit the 45-minute Spoil (www.ilcp.com, http://vimeo.com/19582018). The film follows a team from the International League of Conservation Photographers and members of the Gitga’at Nation in Hartley Bay, as they gather imagery and stories about the ecologically rich Great Bear Rainforest to share with the world, in particular, the elusive white-coated, spirit bear. It’s abundantly clear why oil tankers must have no place here.

Finally, the director of Einsatzgruppen, Michael Prazan, is guest speaker for his lauded, three-hour investigation into Nazi death squads (March 11, 1PM, www.vjff.org).

Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.

Going underground

Portrait of Director Agnieszka Holland

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

• There have been many movies about the Holocaust. So much so there is a fear that filmmakers’ constant re-framing and re-imagining of it undermines and clouds the awful history they seek to convey. However, for Polish director Agnieszka Holland, there is still a sense the “main mystery” surrounding why humans behaved as they did has still not been fully explored.

Holland is perhaps best known for Europa Europa, her film about a boy who conceals he is Jewish by joining the Hitler Youth. Her latest film, In Darkness, focuses on a group of Jews from many backgrounds who hid out for 14 months in the sewers to escape the liquidation of the ghetto in Lvov in Poland.

The script, written by David F. Shamoon, derives from a true story taken from Robert Marshall’s book In the Sewers of Lvov. It follows Leopold Socha – popular Polish actor Robert Wieckiewicz – a sewer worker and thief who agrees to hide the group after they offer him significantly more money than the Nazis’ bounty on Jews. What starts off as an opportunist business arrangement becomes something deeper and more dangerous for Socha and his family as he discovers his humanitarian side.

Critics have praised the film for its vivid recreation of the squalid conditions in the sewer, compared to life above ground, leaving the audience wanting to come up for air by the end. The ordeal in the dark, dank conditions also reveals the strains and clashes of the clearly flawed individuals within the group as they struggle to survive. It also aptly shows the social diversity of the time, with people speaking Polish, German, Yiddish and Ukrainian.

How much Holland’s film – Poland’s foreign language entry for the 2012 Oscars – sheds light on the dark “mystery” that caused humans to behave so hideously towards one another is sure to be a talking point, while offering a dramatic and ultimately heart-warming take on the Second World War experience.

Steven Soderbergh’s latest, Haywire (out now), has no pretensions to great art although the two-dimensional thriller with a kick-ass female might lend it a feminist spin. Soderbergh is clearly having fun with the action genre, with trademark long shots and limited use of music. The film is short on emotional backstory: an ex-marine working for a private company in special ops finds herself the target of an elaborate and deadly plot. Gina Carano, playing the curvaceous heroine, gives a frustratingly inscrutable performance, but her experience as a mixed martial arts champ makes her a thoroughly credible action figure as she dispatches the bad guys.

Angelina Jolie, action woman on-screen and off (in her role as UN Goodwill Ambassador), makes her directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey, set in war-torn 1980s Bosnia. Graphic in its depiction of the horrors of war and ethnic cleansing, the ambitious debut has had a mixed critical reception.

Having hung up his wand, Harry Potter star Daniel Ratcliffe graduates to gothic horror in The Woman in Black (out February 3). Set in the early 1900s, Ratcliffe plays a lawyer who, while working on a deceased client’s papers in a remote mansion, begins to see a mysterious woman dressed only in black and uncovers tragic secrets about the local village.

Breaking boundaries

FILMS WORTH WATCHING

by Robert Alstead

 

on a city street a barebacked man runs, holding a woman in midair
Dancers perform in Wim Wenders’ Pina

Two films due to open this month bring the wizardry of digital cinema to the arthouse with stunning results. Firstly, there’s Wim Wenders’ Pina 3D, a portrait of the work of the celebrated German choreographer Pina Bausch (due out January 27).

Pina was a film that almost didn’t get made. On June 30, 2009, only two days before the planned 3D rehearsal shoot, its subject Pina Bausch suddenly died. After a period of mourning, Wenders decided to go ahead with a “memoir,” showcasing Bausch’s theatrical choreography and the muscular grace of the dancers from Bausch’s internationally diverse Tanztheater Wuppertal.

The core of the film – and where the 3D cinematography really comes into its own – is the live performances of four of Bausch’s choreographed pieces. The 3D gives the stage depth and, at times, it’s almost like being among the performers. The dancing is mesmerizing, from the explosive, shape-shifting movement of the opening The Rite of Spring, performed on a carpet of peat, to the exuberant Vollmond where the dancers cavort on a stage swimming with water (a stage electrician’s nightmare, no doubt).

Archive footage of Bausch performing her signature piece, the minimalist Café Müller, with its at times scrabbly, fidgety movement, is juxtaposed with a later 3D performance. In the fourth piece, Kontakthof, the filmmaker’s hand is much in evidence with jump cuts between different generations of performers mid-performance.

Bausch rarely gave verbal advice (the occasions she did are cherished by the dancers like gold nuggets). She preferred to show. Similarly, Wenders has the dancers express themselves in movement – in a street, a factory, a swimming pool or in a woodland with a leaf-blower blasting – accentuating their otherworldliness. I came out of this film thinking I really must see more dance.

The second film breaking new boundaries is The Mill and the Cross, which steps inside the 1564 painting The Way to Calvary by Flemish master Pieter Bruegel. The painting/film sets Christ’s crucifixion in Flanders during a period of thuggish Spanish repression (due out January 6).

Polish director Lech Majewski’s imagining, based on the book by Michael Francis Gibson, tells the stories of a dozen characters from the busy canvas of 500 individuals. The script, which uses little dialogue, stays loyal to the spirit of the painting: surreal scenes take us inside the windmill, featured atop a high precipice in the painting and Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) describes to his friend and art collector Nicholas Jonghelinck (Michael York) how he has painted the tragedy of religious persecution epitomized by the figure of the Virgin Mary (a mournful Charlotte Rampling).

Majewski used different techniques to merge art and real life. Actors were shot against a blue screen so they could be superimposed later in craggy landscapes shot on location as well as against a large version of Bruegel’s work (painted by Majewski). The stylized backdrop is sufficiently subtle that your awareness of being “in” the painting ebbs and flows. It’s an unusual film, but rewarding.

Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.

Surviving Progress

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

We have thrived, but can we survive?

One of the main criticisms levelled at the Occupy movement has been that it is unclear what it is about. Critics have pointed to a plethora of issues – corporate greed, government debt, indigenous rights, unemployment, homelessness, ecological destruction, GMOs, climate change, and more – that seemed to be jostling for peoples’ attention. Of course, many or all of these issues are interconnected, although it seems we are still struggling to find the wherewithal to express just how.

Surviving Progress, a new documentary by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, launching at the Rio Theatre December 2-8, does a pretty good job of just that. The film was actually made before the Occupy movement exploded onto the scene in North America. But it echoes many of the same ideas and concerns raised by Occupiers, in a series of thought-provoking interviews with leading thinkers placed within the context of the big picture of human evolution, from the primitive ape of the Ice Age to the intellectual ape of the Technology Age.

One of the key interviewees and inspiration for the film is Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress (2005), upon which the film is based. Wright suggests that, while progress generally brings improvement, sometimes it can lead to what he calls a “progress trap.” For example, when primitive man became too successful at hunting mammoths, his food supply became extinct.

This ecological theme tracks right through Surviving Progress. “Earth is finite”, we cannot overspend its “natural capital,” we are reminded by the likes of Margaret Atwood, David Suzuki, Jane Goodall, and some slick CGI sequences and flyovers depicting disappearing natural landscapes.

Yet there is a rapidly growing population around the world wanting access to the “bonanza” of resources and material wealth, as is conveyed in a tense visit to a saw mill at the edge of a Brazilian rainforest and a road trip with a convoy of Chinese nouveau riche drivers.

As Michael Hudson, former balance-of-payments economist for the Chase Manhattan Bank explains, our financial system is designed for the short-term gain of a self-governing financial class, at the expense of whole nations that are burdened with debt, poverty and ecological devastation: “They’re cutting down the rainforest, they’re emptying out the economy, they’re turning it into a hole in a ground – to repay the bankers,” he says.

Familiar territory perhaps, but the documentary is more contemplative than alarming with its soothing, minimalist soundtrack and deft editing that reinforces the idea of humanity’s interconnectedness. While there’s no denying the danger of impending ecological collapse due to humanity’s voracious expansion, the film suggests that survival is possible by transcending the “ancestral” or “reflexive” mind of our primitive hunter selves and acting together to fix the system. “We are running 21st century software – our knowledge – on hardware that hasn’t been upgraded for 50,000 years,” says Wright.

Stephen Hawking’s suggestion of interplanetary colonization and geneticist Craig Venter’s rather frightening proposition that we “write software for life… redesigning for our own survival” offer a glimpse of potential technological solutions (funded by multi-national corporations). However, the film seems to side with Jim Thomas, author of the The New Biomassters, who dismisses out of hand synthetic biology as “a progress trap par excellence.” “The microbes are going to end up laughing at them,” he says.

Ultimately, as Vaclav Smil, population scientist and author of Global Catastrophes and Trends, puts it in an irrepressible monologue, the main solution, the one that people don’t want to talk about, is not a new one: “We have to use less.” Surviving Progress is the kind of good-looking and palatable package that may help sink that elementary idea a bit deeper into our ape brains.

Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.