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.
The suffering of dozens of people is vividly documented. They drink the infested water. Many have health problems. Their children are born with severe health issues. And no one takes responsibility. The film is 80 minutes of pure misery. And there is nothing you can do but witness it. If you don’t decide to walk out the cinema, that is. Bhopali doesn’t make the viewer empathize, because no one’s story is developed enough. It is rather a film about collective suffering exemplified by individuals.
Bitter Seeds has a different approach. The IDFA winner is a good example of a documentary portraying collective suffering in a personal manner. It tells the story behind an increasing number of farmer suicides in India. The film directed by Micha X Peled is part of his ‘Globalization Trilogy’ together with Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town and China Blue.
The bottom line is that Monsanto’s genetically modified cotton seeds and their monopoly on the Indian market are slowly destroying the traditional Indian farmer’s life. These seeds promise high yields but because they need special growing conditions, they are not suitable for small-scale farming. The farmers don’t know this and they borrow money at high interest to be able to afford the seeds and the pesticides. After one year of work they find themselves in a lot of debt and with no solution, as the yield is not high at all and they cannot even pay back their loans.
The first story is that of Manjusha Amberwar, a farmer’s daughter. After the suicide of her father, she decides to document and write about the suicides cases happening in her village for a local newspaper. Her research and the interviews help the viewer understand what the death of her father means to her family and to the community. Her questions uncover the chain of debt, worries and the desperation of many farmers who, just like her father, took their own lives. It also shows how this chain affects everyone in the family.
The second story follows Ram Krishna, a cotton farmer who takes up two loans so he can plant genetically modified cotton. In order to do this he has to provide a guarantee and the only valuable thing he has is his land, which he risks losing when his crop yield is not sufficient to cover both loans. The camera follows him step by step. Ram Krishna’s face becomes more and more worried and his eyes emptier every day. His poverty has long term implications for him and his family. They need to pay back the loans. They need to eat. And because the seeds are not renewable, they need to buy them every year. On top of all this, the first daughter needs dowry so she can contract a good marriage. Being unable to marry her off would bring great shame on her father and his second daughter would also be unmarriable.
Firstly, excessive negativity tends to create guilt. Instead of opening a door for discussion and reflection, guilt is not constructive. It drives people away instead of involving them. Secondly, exhibiting suffering without a personal side and without nuance does not engage the viewer. People need to empathize in order to understand and in most cases that happens on a personal level.