The fascinating, fresh-minded new documentary SURVIVING PROGRESS bursts beyond the rickety gate of several hundred year-old science and collected human logic, asking "Why?" It questions and challenges vital and essential notions, very much including but not limited to the thought process of the way we do science. Directed collaboratively by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks (each experienced in the ways of "the activism documentary"), SURVIVING PROGRESS sparks vital conversation and thoughts if not big-screen worthy presentation. Were it not for Martin Scorsese ostensibly lending his name and clout as Executive Producer, we'd likely be experiencing the film on public television, perhaps as a slightly glossier and global "Frontline" special in the U.S. It's the kind of project that can't help but be top heavy with Importance, even as it stretches our minds and occasionally our patience, but hardly it's own credibility. But the Big Questions still stand...
From where I sit, it feels as though the world is taking things away from us faster than many can adapt. For some, this has been happening for decades. An old example: The rise of the internet in day to day life has been more than a small conundrum for a wide swath of our seasoned citizens, under-educated and under-privileged. Information and interaction of all kinds is now at our fingertips (if you're fortunate enough to be in the right place in the right circumstance), an encyclopedia, news ticker, how-to-manual and communications hub now in the palm our hands (if you can afford and maintain an iPhone) (Which I can't) - but if you're old enough to remember working professionally on a typewriter, it may feel like too much too fast. That's just one sector of the folks left behind in a coldly justified Darwinian push, one that is ostensibly forward thinking, but with the blinders so systemically tight as to not see the depressed gutters on the Road To Progress.
The industrialization of the family farm is another example. Utilizing the scientific advancements of companies like Monsanto, millions more people are being fed than ever before. But is the forsaking of the natural in favor of human engineered product truly fit for human consumption, or are we playing a moral kind of Russian Roulette; the bullet cancer, pollution, and the willing empowerment of a corporate overlord with the power and sway to bully, steamroller, and/or assimilate all in it's path. (The path is no less than the entire planet.) The exponential leaps in human progress of recent years, particularly when compared to the broad-spanning whole of human history, have been truly mind-boggling. But is this truly progress, or are they "progress traps"? (A winning term utilized by high-minded Canadian author, Ronald Wright, who appears in the film.)
Internet isolation and widespread chemical artifice of our crops. Is it worth it? Do we as a race understand moderation? These are just tip-of-the-iceberg questions for the array of contemporary thinkers, scientists and academics who speak throughout the course of SURVIVING PROGRESS. (If the discourse in this review is wearing you out, imagine it at feature length, but with occasional KOYAANISQATSI-esque sequences.) The film makes different points demonstrating that human beings themselves are perhaps antiquated in terms of the ways we're pushing ourselves, the push itself now utterly passé. We perpetuate a two hundred year task of building better machines, more machines, all the while watching as the human machine degenerates by our own meddling. It also, however, tells us that human beings are not simply hairless apes, as we wield the uncanny and unmatched compulsion for intuitive exploration, trial and error, and always asking "Why?"
With a discussion this big being brewed, the touted, obvious political and social biases of the filmmakers can't help but seem petty and small-minded. For all its honest probing and essential weight, SURVIVING PROGRESS left me curiously ever-so-slightly unfulfilled. The questions it asks, the crises it suggests, the changes it urges, all fade gradually as the film recesses in the mental rearview mirror of the viewer. This is partially human nature (they say we forget 80% of the Sunday morning sermon by Sunday evening, 95% of it by Tuesday), but also partially a result of the topically shifting theoretical info-dump that can't help but be in the DNA of a talking head activism doc such as SURVIVING PROGRESS. As relatively solid as SURVIVING PROGRESS is as a film, I couldn't help but come away thinking about Alfonso Cuarón's similarly themed 2006 science fiction call to arms CHILDREN OF MEN, itself a film that only grows only more intense in the memory, more poignant as the years go by. This notion is one that I suspect Martin Scorsese could identify with when it comes to the potential power of narrative fiction trumping a talking head/travelogue litany, but SURVIVNG PROGRESS is what it is, and asking "why" won't change that. But do check it out, either in the theater now or perhaps on public television in the future. Such activism docs won't change the world, but they can spark the mechanism (as antiquated as it may or may not be).
- Jim Tudor
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