Two social justice docs at IDFA targeted and systematically attacked the same universal villain: progress. Four Horsemen and Surviving Progress are both “big picture” documentaries that tackle some of today’s most globally pressing issues. At their best moments, both films leave audiences wondering not only what they can do to help, but also about their own complicit involvement in the large scale struggles of our planet and its inhabitants. A treatise on the impending environmental mayhem that will befall us if we don’t clean up our act fast, Surviving Progress, by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, competed in the Green Screen competition. First Appearance Competition entry Four Horsemen, by one-time theater director Ross Ashchroft, is an impassioned critique of the economic chaos that characterizes what Ashcroft calls the last stage of an empire. Both docs aim to deconstruct the rarely questioned belief that more is better—more money, more machines, more technology, more development. Though they share common ground in subject matter, the two films stylistically part ways.
Voice Over: To Narrate or Not to Narrate?
Both docs draw on impressive casts of talking heads. Four Horsemen boasts Noam Chomsky while Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall, and the breathtakingly charismatic Czech global energy expert Vaclav Smil, and others, appear in Surviving Progress. One expert, economic historian and former Wall Street economist Michael Hudson, makes an appearance in both films. The all-star line-ups mean that interviews serve as a major structural device while also providing the bulk of content. But when it comes to voice-over narration that augments or clarifies the film’s content, the two filmmaking teams diverged in their approach.
At IDFA Ashcroft said he knew he wanted voice-over from the get-go, although the narration underwent immense changes before he arrived at a final cut. A less than favorable test screening in LA prompted Ashcroft to scrap the first version of voice-over, which he described as “far more raw, far more angry, a lot more polemic” than the final version, performed by Dominic Frisby. Frisby helped with the script and even introduced a sequence on FIAT money to the film. “It’s about hiring people, getting people involved, and then getting out of their way and letting them work,” Ashcroft said. “And that can be really difficult because you birthed this thing and you’re protective about it.”
On the other hand, Crooks and Roy decided against including voice-over early on in their project. “In order for this to be a powerful cinematic experience rather than solely classical social justice documentary—no voice over narration, no voice of God narration,” Crooks said after his film screened. “That simple decision probably added a year to the film, because to figure out how to weave together in a coherent way the different themes and participants without narration was a huge challenge, but I think it paid off.” Roy elaborated: “The challenge was to find a balance between dense ideas and purely cinematic experience. By removing narration, I gained more space in the film to let the image and music speak.”
The most moving moments in Surviving Progress occur when verbal narration might have been used, but carefully crafted visual and aural displays unfold instead. For example, a crisp close-up of a halogen light bulb captures in slow-mo the seizure of its filament by electric current. You can practically see electrons launching into atoms as myriad bright tendrils of electricity blossom out against the bulb’s glass walls. Then the bulb bursts, sending shards to float through the air, glinting like steel in the sun. Roy attributes such shots to the desire he had to make a visually stunning film from the beginning of the project six years ago. “You do want some time to digest these ideas so it’s important to create these kind of visual interludes.”
Animation: The Forced Visual?
While first-timer Ashcroft lacks the cinematic latitude exemplified in Surviving Progress, he found another method to infuse the film with visual information. When it came time to edit the film, Ashcroft found himself stumped. “How do you cut pictures to these concepts? So I said, we need to animate this. And then we set out looking for an animator and we were just really blessed to find Pola.” Pola Gruszka created several short and sleekly minimalist animated sequences that make the narration easier to digest. But the result risks over-simplifying concepts with selective rather than comprehensive illustration. Ashcroft explained the reasoning behind the decision to pare down the exposition: “You have to meet people where they’re at and in my view…a lot of people just aren’t there yet, so you’ve got to break the news gently.” Unfortunately, the gulf between visual simplicity and conceptual complexity is often too big to overlook and draws eyes toward the film’s uneven construction.
Presenting (or Prescribing) Parting Words
The two filmmaking teams adopted very different methods for presenting their takeaway points. Four Horsemen concludes with concrete suggestions for fixing the economy, drawing on classical principles of economics (e.g. tax consumption instead of labor). “We’re not prescriptive, I hope,” said Ashcroft, who added that his film is merely bringing back to the forefront old ideas. “But we can’t…leave people without hope and say, ‘By the way, there is no way of changing this, isn’t it all awful?'” The directors of Surviving Progress also wanted to avoid waxing prescriptive, so they decided to end the film on an even more ambiguous note. “Ultimately it’s up to the audience member to try to find out how one can change his habits,” said Roy. But now that the film is finished and traveling the festival circuit, Roy wonders if they should have considered including tangible recommendations. “Sometimes that’s what we get from audiences. They’re like, ‘Okay, that’s great, but what can I do?’…Maybe it will convince us to do the sequel with very concrete solutions.”
Hot button, high stakes debates about the economy and the environment are undeniably important, but both films suffer, at times, from over-dependence on (mostly white and male) talking heads. Both films could have benefited from more insight from artists and philosophers. Because even though the stylistic choices available to documentary filmmakers may appear limited, when making your once-in-a-career Fate of Humankind movie, the smallest decisions become significant.