Surviving Progress

Surviving Progress featured image

December 2, 2011
Reviewed by Marc Glassman

Mathieu Roy & Harold Crooks, directors
Martin Scorsese, Mark Achbar, Betsy Carson, Silva Basmajian, executive producers
Daniel Louis & Denise Robert & Gerry Flahive, producers
Feature documentary with: Ronald Wright, based on his book A Short History of Progress; scientist and philosopher Stephen Hawking, economist Vaclav Smil, primatologist Jane Goodall, Margaret Atwood, biologist and genome discoverer Craig Venter, “no impact” activist Colin Beavan, former IMF chief economist Stephen Johnson, Brazil Senator Marina Silva, David Suzuki, journalist Robert Wright

The buzz:
You know that a documentary has to be pretty special to attract a production team that includes Oscar winners Martin Scorsese (The Aviator) and Denise Robert (The Barbarian Invasions), veteran NFBers Silva Basmajian and Gerry Flahive and award-winning independent filmmakers Mark Achbar (The Corporation) and Betsy Carson (A Place Called Chiapas).

This feature length adaptation of Ronald Wright’s Libris award-winning Massey lecture series A Short History of Progress has been generating lots of interest during its tour of film festivals from Toronto to Vancouver.

The genres:
Feature documentary; cautionary tale; essay film; mordant history lesson

The plot:
Featuring some of the world’s great contemporary thinkers, Surviving Progress is nothing short of a massive lesson in taking stock about our present and future. Inspired by Ronald Wright’s bestselling non-fiction book about societal collapse, Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks’ documentary explores the concept of progress in the modern world and, more specifically, the idea of “progress traps.” Simply put, these are innovations that seem like smart moves forward but inadvertently cause new problems.

Drawing on historical examples, Roy and Crooks guide us through a sweeping but detailed survey of the major traps facing contemporary civilization in the arenas of technology, economics, consumption and the environment. Along the way, powerful arguments are heard in interviews with modern luminaries such as Jane Goodall, Margaret Atwood, David Suzuki, Stephen Hawking and Ronald Wright himself, as well as grassroots activists. From prevalent issues like untenable economic structures, deforestation and political corruption, to the more controversial domains of overpopulation and synthetic biology, Roy and Crooks do not shy away from even the thorniest of topics.

The direction:
Roy and Crooks feature moments of great visual excitement using wildlife footage and computer generated imagery but on the whole this essay film relies heavily on ‘talking heads.’ The directors attempt to vary content but the over-all gloomy picture of the future presented by Wright in his lectures prevents them from changing the tone much, particularly in the last half of the film.

The skinny: 
Like some of the key socio-political documentaries of the last ten years — The Corporation, Manufactured Landscapes, An Inconvenient Truth, Force of Nature and Inside Job — Surviving Progress raises critical questions about the pivotal mistakes society has made. It does so from a remarkable big-picture perspective, seamlessly tackling multiple and disparate issues. The question of how we escape the traps leads to even deeper concerns about the potential fixes. Just as Ronald Wright did in his book, the future that is painted is quite gloomy. This is a very well made cautionary tale about the world we live in now—and what can happen to it in the next few years.

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