Surviving Progress: History repeats itself

History repeats itself

Mathieu Roy: "Our film digs deeper into human nature and tries to go way back to understand the patterns we create"
Photo: Sophie Samson (assistant Yannick Malek)

Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks ponder the fate of civilization in Surviving Progress, the opening film of the Festival du nouveau cinéma's Focus section

When you think progress, you immediately think good things. All the advancement that civilization has brought about, from the technological to the societal, are all clear indicators that human beings are capable of greatness far beyond their original scope. You’d have to be pretty crazy to argue the opposite, right? Well, call him crazy then, because Montreal filmmaker Mathieu Roy presents progress as something that could actually be the death of humanity in his new documentary, Surviving Progress.

Six years ago, Roy read Ronald Wright’s bestseller A Short History of Progress and was inspired to make his third non-narrative feature. The book consists of a series of lectures that paint civilization itself as an experiment, and a failing one at that. The rationale is that the ever-growing global civilization, and all the resources required to maintain that continued growth, has reached a point where it will soon become unsustainable. Aside from grappling with that hard reality, Roy was also faced with the difficult task of translating it to film.

"We tried many things. At some point, I even considered fictional characters," Mathieu Roy explains of his process, revealing also that he debated taking the same non-verbal approach used in films like Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi. Fortunately for Roy, his production team contained some pretty experienced names to help point him in the right direction, including none other than Martin Scorsese, whom he worked for as an assistant when Scorsese shot The Aviator in Montreal.

It was another of Surviving Progress‘ executive producers, Mark Achbar, who suggested Roy speak with Harold Crooks, a co-writer on Achbar’s The Corporation. This collaboration was so successful that Crooks would go on to become the co-writer and co-director of Surviving Progress. "Harold and I met and he asked what was important to me, what was the essence of the film," Roy recounts. "We had numerous debates and conversations about it and we came up with a treatment that is not that far from the film we have today."

Crooks was excited to come aboard. "It’s not every day you get the chance to make a film about the fate of civilization," Crooks declares with exuberance, yet still fully aware of the weight that opportunity carries. "We had to grow as human beings in our knowledge and in our understanding of the issues." And grow they did. For Roy, surviving the intense depth of research necessary to make Surviving Progress brought about some of his life’s most significant personal progress. "It was a heightening experience, an experience that has made me a better human being, someone that definitely understands the mechanism of the world better than I did before."

The issues Roy and Crooks raise are all interconnected and span the full 5,000 years civilization has been in existence, which represents but 0.2 percent of our evolutionary timeline (just one of the fascinating bits of information I drew from the film). They range from the developments in synthetic biology to the relationship between Wall Street and the destruction of the rainforest and even China’s embracing of the capitalist mode of production.

Crooks elaborates, "We didn’t want yet another eco-collapse, Wall Street disaster film. Given that civilization is an experiment, there was no guarantee it was going to be a success. So, from that perspective, and with the lessons of previous civilizations that have run over the cliff, we identified key factors that pushed them over the edge, and tried to find them in the present. We then had to weave a tapestry of all of these issues cinematically."

It was important for Roy as well to differentiate Surviving Progress from the mounting glut of docs preaching doom and gloom. "Our film digs deeper into human nature and tries to go way back to understand the patterns we create," he says. Crooks continues Roy’s thought process as seamlessly as one would expect from two people who have been working together on the same project for five years. "From very early on though, we agreed that this would not be a historical film, that it would be rooted in the present and looking forward."

Speaking of forward, Surviving Progress may not provide answers or solutions to the problems it points out in our modern design, but, unlike many other fatalist forms of filmmaking, it does provide possibilities. "Technology will not solve the problem. Technology will only further aggravate the problem," Roy states with conviction. "It’s simply about limits. We provide some solutions but we also show debate on these solutions. It was important for us to provide the audience with an array of different points of view."

A filmmaker interested in allowing audiences to come to their own conclusions? Now that’s progress we could all survive.

Surviving Progress
Festival du nouveau cinéma at Cinema Imperial, October 13
At Quartier Latin, October 15
In theatres November 4

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Festival du nouveau cinema

The 40th edition of the FNC opens on October 12 with the presentation of Valérie Donzelli’s La Guerre est déclarée and closes on the 23rd with Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar – respectively France’s and Canada’s submissions for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. Other highlights of the 2011 FNC include Alexandre Sokurov’s Golden Lion-winning Faust, Asghar Farhadi’s Golden Bear-winning A Separation, and such Cannes Film Festival alumni as Lars von Trier (Melancholia), Pedro Almodóvar (The Skin I Live In) and Takashi Miike (Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai). Representing Quebec are, among others, Anne Émond (Nuit #1), Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie (Laurentie), and Paule Baillargeon (30 tableaux). The always intriguing Temps 0 section will notably feature Sion Sono’s Guilty of Romance, Romain Gavras’ Notre jour viendra and Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter. Finally, an Amos Gitai retrospective, the FNC Lab, the P’tits Loups and FNC Pro sections and various special events will also contribute to keeping us busy. www.nouveaucinema.ca (Kevin Laforest)

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