Agood example of a documentary that aims to inspire people to find solutions is Surviving Progress. This docu-essay is about growth and its damaging effects. It was written and directed by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks and was inspired by Ronald Wright’s book A Short History of Progress.
Following his line of argumentation and adding more to it, Surviving Progress tries to cover an issue so broad that it becomes an argumentation roller-coaster. You feel sucked in and spat out after 80 minutes without much space for reflection. The film features world-renowned environmental activists from different fields, such as Margaret Atwood, David Suzuki, Jane Goodall and Steven Hawking. Without doubt it has the authority of the opinions of these globally recognized figures.
The film begins by discussing how we have strived so much for progress and growth that we have lost control over how much progress is good for us and how much growth we actually can support. Growth requires more growth to the point where developments are required not for their usefulness but only to keep growing. And on a planet with finite natural resources this is mathematically impossible. Nature’s regeneration capacities have a much slower rate than our rate of consumption – thus we are destroying the habitat that feeds us.
This documentary puts our entire existence into question and does this without a complex analysis. By nature, green issues are structural and so complex that it’s difficult to tackle every aspect involved in one single problem. But Surviving Progress doesn’t even try. The film is one-sided and presents only the negative aspects. Director Mathieu Roy said (Volkskrant, 21-11-11) that with this movie they mainly wanted to explain the mechanisms behind the problems and thereby inspire young people to come up with solutions. But a one-sided approach creates a one-sided solution, which is not in fact a solution. A more holistic understanding is needed and Surviving Progress offers anything but that.
A good example of a balanced documentary is LoveMEATender. This is the debut documentary of Belgian director Manu Coeman. The film is a comprehensive look at the meat industry and the social and environmental effects of meat production. In its line of argumentation, the director mixed filmed images, animations and the story of farmer André Pochon. Pochon remembers the times when eating meat was rare and special and analyzes the way the role of meat has changed in our lives. He shows how eating meat used to be rare and festive. But nowadays people eat it every day. This means that people eat too many proteins, which is unhealthy for the human body. The consequences include obesity, cancer, diabetes and resistance to antibiotics.
Without sparing the viewer any visual detail from the suffering the meat industry is causing, the film is not shocking or negative. It is a balanced film and makes viewers reflect without making them feel guilty. It presumes that viewers don’t know many things about meat production, which happens far from their view. The documentary invites them to decide for themselves who they want to be in the production chain.
The guilt-free approach to environmental issues might be a success formula. But guilt is not a constructive feeling. People don’t like to feel responsible for large-scale problems to which they feel they don’t contribute directly. Guilt doesn’t empower people to make a change. What Surviving Progress and LoveMEATender got differently and what differentiates them is their approach to guilt.
The way suffering is portrayed also makes a difference in viewer’s reactions. In general, there is a limit to how much human suffering someone can witness in a film. People can empathize with individuals or small groups. When the stories are too many and when the suffering is unbalanced and without nuance, there is the risk of compassion fatigue. This is the case with Bhopali, an American documentary directed by Van Maximilian Carlson. It tells the story of survival after the worst industrial disaster in history. In 1984, a Union Carbide plant leaked a toxic gas that killed thousands of people in Bhopali, India. The film shows the dramatic after-effects of this disaster and people’s fight for justice, even 25 years later.
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