A permanent vacation from reality

    CULTURE: Everyday life in and around the world's biggest retirement community.

    Donald Trump’s aggressive attacks on the press, his slamming of any critical coverage as «fake news», and his frenetic use of Twitter as a direct line of communication to incite a violent insurrection turned the former President’s years in power into an authoritarian spectacle of disinformation. It left the reputation of the United States as a democracy with a relatively free press in tatters, provoking shock at just how quickly this erosion had taken hold in a populace that had proven surprisingly susceptible to conspiracy theories, and hostile to the safeguards of a system designed to keep leaders honest and accountable. How did it happen? Fingers have pointed to the myth of American exceptionalism, that delusional pride in a fantasy that the U.S. is the greatest nation on the planet and that as such the traumatic and genocidal divisions that have historically ripped apart Europe could never reach their logical, most extreme conclusions there. It’s a myth only infrequently challenged in an infamously insular (albeit vast) nation in which more than half of its citizens don’t have a passport and have never left its borders. You are what you consume, it’s said — and for many Americans living lifestyles of entertainment-oriented consumption, that’s a steady diet of right-leaning Fox News.

    The Bubble, a film by Valerie Blankenbyl
    The Bubble, a film by Valerie Blankenbyl

    Sinister and engineered

    The stereotype of the sheltered duffus who can’t find their own backyard on a map has unfairly plagued more curious and open-minded Americans for decades, and does not account for nuance, the nation’s richness as a cultural powerhouse, and its complex layers as a deeply divided sprawl of diverse states and countless identities. As a slide toward fascism ramped up with alarming pace under Trump, urgent and fierce resistance also erupted across the country. The Black Lives Matter movement and the multiple protests that sprung up against police brutality and racially motivated violence gained massive, unprecedented support among citizens previously complacent and contented to overlook that the nation was built on slavery and racial oppression. But as the country sizzled with rage, many Americans did just keep blithely sunning themselves and golfing. Filmmaker Valerie Blankenbyl takes us into the very heart of that privilege and ignorance in The Bubble, a documentary that had its world premiere at Nyon festival Visions du Réel — and it’s a disconnect more sinister and engineered than we might have imagined.

    The stereotype of the sheltered duffus who can’t find their own backyard on a map has unfairly plagued more curious and open-minded Americans for decades

    The Villages in central Florida is the world’s biggest retirement community, a rapidly expanding development district where 155,000 people aged over 55 reside, many of them having moved south sold on a lifestyle of sunshine and carefree leisure amid the 54 golf courses, 70 swimming pools, and 96 recreation centres. The Villages community is also a politically powerful entity, a large voting bloc that is staunchly Republican. Labelled by one skeptical journalist a «weird social experiment» where «everything is controlled», the community has very few ethnic minority residents, the developers having created a parallel, and whiter, version of society fenced off from reality (though on public land, they get away with running it as if a gated community.) They have come for twilight years of escapism, which also means a haven away from opinions or needs that might clash with their own. The Villages have their own newspaper, which never writes anything negative about them, and its radio station, an affiliate of Fox News, is broadcast from speakers on every street light in every town square, 24 hours per day. It’s easy for people to believe what they want to believe there, in other words. Even death is muted in The Villages, ambulances having been instructed to turn off their sirens before entering. Some interviewed residents claim they deserve, after long working lives, to be left to enjoy their final years in peace, disengaged from any social strife.

    The Bubble, a film by Valerie Blankenbyl
    The Bubble, a film by Valerie Blankenbyl

    A special kind of toxic

    Voting clout is not the only way in which the impact of the retirees is felt beyond their cloistered existence, as less financially comfortable locals are pushed out of their homes by the aggressive expansion of the development. The ecosystem is thrown out of balance by the resource-guzzling way of life in The Villages, massive water use creating sinkholes, as the «Old Florida» that relocating residents so wanted a taste of becomes the very thing they are destroying. Those running the experiment, for their part, refuse to speak on camera, but disgruntled locals accuse them of feeling entitled to cause destruction by an arrogant belief nothing was there before they came, and that they have done a service by bringing low-paying service jobs to the area. «It’s nothing new… It’s how capitalism works,» opines one resident. None of these phenomena and fantasies — capitalism, gated communities, disinformation, fascism and the self-congratulatory back-pat of an endless, carefree vacation — are new, but in combination in today’s America, The Bubble shows us, they are a special kind of toxic.

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    Carmen Gray
    Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
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