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SUSTAINABILITY: A spirited documentary following a visionary counterculture collective, as well as a cautionary tale about the forces destroying the planet.

Sundance had a strong showing of documentary films this year. The slate was noteworthy for the subjects covered and also for inventive storytelling techniques. Spaceship Earth stood out for its expert storytelling. The film, which premiered in the U.S Documentary Competition, was directed by Matt Wolf (Teenage, Recorder).

Here’s the blurb from the Sundance Catalog:
In 1991, eight capable men and women were sealed into Biosphere 2, an airtight terrarium in the Arizona desert containing a miniature replica of Earth’s environment. Funded by a Texas oil tycoon hoping to acquire licensable technologies for space colonization, the mission of Biosphere 2 was to maintain an isolated, sustainable environment for two years. It was a mission that became a dystopian simulation of ecological crisis, after which a corporate consultant took over the venture—and disappeared the data.

Spaceship Earth-Biosphere 2-documentary-post1
Spaceship Earth, a film by Matt Wolf | Image Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Biosphere 2

Spaceship Earth is a film that appears to be about one thing—on face, people might call it “ «that Biosphere 2» documentary. But once the film gets rolling, you quickly realize it is about much more. Sure, Spaceship Earth does chronicle the tale of the massive airtight terrarium built in the Arizona desert, you won’t need to ask for a refund if that’s what you’re after. But the film transcends that historical event to illuminate the people behind the project, a group called the Synergists, without whom Biosphere 2 would not have existed. And it’s the Synergists — who they were, their ethos, and what they were able to accomplish—that is the heart and delight of the film.

The interests of the Synergists (they hailed from Synergia Ranch in New Mexico), might read like an encyclopedia of 1960s memes: Buckminster Fuller, Theater of the Absurd, communal living. There even was a charismatic leader (John Allen). But any attempt to sideline the Synergists as countercultural hippies would miss the point. The Synergists, for instance, did not believe in taking drugs. And with their intense work ethic, they could move mountains or, at least, build a ship from Chinese scrap metal (with no previous shipbuilding experience) then sail around the world. The Synergists’ story is one of imagination and creation, and it’s amazing to think their story had not yet been told.

any attempt to sideline the Synergists as countercultural hippies would miss the point.

What makes this film so remarkable is the treasure trove of 16mm black and white footage that the Synergists shot (it’s expertly integrated into Spaceship Earth). They documented so much, from working in the garden to theater rehearsals to even building that wild ship. They created a living archive of their processes and adventures. It’s hard to imagine Spaceship Earth existing without this footage. Wolf says he was astonished when he realized the breadth of footage that was archived (which also included broadcast media from the time of Biospehere 2). Says Wolf, «To imagine having been together for half a century and to have all of this material which they probably hadn’t seen or didn’t have the ability to see, and for us to be able to make use of it, felt  like such an extraordinary opportunity.»

An exercise in storytelling

When I was reflecting on this film, I thought about an exercise from film school where everyone is given copies of the same footage and told to craft a story from it. The exercise is all about storytelling. Everyone has their own take on what story the footage is telling. Watching Spaceship Earth, I was affected by what seemed like Wolf’s deep commitment to get the story of the Synergists and Biosphere 2 right. It’s like you can feel how committed Wolf was (and editor David Teague) to this task. Wolf says he’s motivated by forgotten stories. «I’m mostly interested as a filmmaker in looking at hidden histories or forgotten stories that have an enhanced contemporary relevance and to resurrect these stores that have either been forgotten or overlooked. »

Spaceship Earth certainly answers that charge. The film touches on a lot of history, more than this short review does. And there’s more in the film about science, Biosphere 2 and its flaws, and lots more about human connections and potential. I am sorry to not talk more about the remarkable people interviewed in the film, hearing from them is worth the price of admission alone.

What makes this film so remarkable is the treasure trove of 16mm black and white footage

In the end, Spaceship Earth is an epic story told over the course of 50 years about epic people. That we could imagine everyday humans being as epic as the Synergists and Biospherians is the invitation of the film. What would it take for a small group of people to set their vision and imagination on a wild goal and get up every day to accomplish it? Does that have to be such a wild proposition? Have we become too cynical? Has our belief in possibility diminished? If you need a reminder about the awesome creative potential of humanity, see this film.

Featured Image: Spaceship Earth, a film by Matt Wolf | Image Courtesy of Sundance Institute

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