An essay-documentary meditating on future visions and utopias holds a dark heart given the current state of our society.
It’s in keeping with the spirit of our times that the meditation on utopianism Near and Elsewhere is less a glowing vision of possible paradises to come than a critically uneasy stock take of a crisis point of ideological confusion. Gathering together an impressive roster of thinkers, from Nobel-winning Belarusian novelist and conduit of oral history Svetlana Alexievich to German futurist Matthias Horx, directors Sue-Alice Okukubo and Eduard Zorzenoni set out a credible diagnosis of our troubled era. They all seem to broadly agree on the causes: a globalised planet connected but complicated by technology, which blind faith in the invisible hand of the markets has pushed to the breaking point.
The conception of utopias as seductive yet reductive flights from reality is touched on throughout. Italian sociology professor Elena Esposito points out that these visions are not so much about the future as they are about how we manage the uncertainties of the present. The concept of money serves as an assurance that we will be able to fulfil as yet undefined needs down the line, as we commercialise part of our existence through systems such as home ownership in the hope that we will gain more freedom and security. But even as we invest in such ideas, technological developments have meant a proliferation of variables and increased difficulty in predicting outcomes. As Horx elaborates, the human brain – not sufficiently evolved from its more basic origins on the savannah – cannot cope with such levels of networked complexity, and from this has sprung a mass «mental inflammation» in human society, by which over-reaction, disorientation and fear have made blights such as populism the order of the day. The envisaging of a utopia typically means a diminishment of the world’s diversity in favour of a central governing concept, but a strong society, he contends, always robustly embraces contradictions.
Very generalised and abstract musings on utopia predominate in a rather vague and scattershot film that references few concrete examples. An exception to this does come from Alexievich, who has made it her life’s work across a number of books to chart through witness testimonies the dreams and disillusionment of generations that lived under the rule and fall of the Soviet regime. She recalls the false euphoria that gripped her region in the ‘90s, as it seemed that with the fall of Communism citizens would be free only a day later. What was ushered in instead was a vulgar, materialistic era of plundering by bandits and oligarchs, who eagerly stepped into a vacuum caused by a lack of understanding as to what freedom constituted or how one needed to work for it.
«These visions of utopia are not so much about the future as they are about how we manage the uncertainties of the present.»
Dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which outlined the Soviet Union as an extensive prison system, could finally be brought from the underground into official publication, but interest in its social value and warnings was dead. While those with so much as a rudimentary knowledge of post-Soviet history will find no revelations in these claims, the observation that dreams of utopia are nothing without practical follow-through is essential.
No grassroots actions
Any practical pointers for a way forward are, however, noticeably missing even if the film underscores that this is part of the problem we have gotten ourselves into. German philosopher and cultural scientist Joseph Vogl suggests that widespread capitalism has led to us living in a time lacking in political imagination, a failure that underpins the proliferation of Hollywood disaster blockbusters. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than a different form of society.
It’s an unexamined bias of the filmmakers that the «experts» consulted are largely superstar names from the realms of the bookish. Shot as talking heads against ivory-tower backdrops (a puritan-white classroom amphitheatre for Vogl, and towering bookshelves for Esposito), the implication is that armchair conjecture and learned knowledge are the real drivers of change; grassroots action on the ground in all its grubby imperfection is nowhere to be seen, even within the limits of the one continent the film, with its Eurocentric tunnel vision, hones in on.
Instead of engagement with the toiling masses, who presumably would be tapped as a resource to power in any new social order if not outright planning it, Near and Elsewhere intercuts segments of poetic fiction. Youthful seekers from another world who have washed up, disoriented, on the shores of Earth Walk and sometimes dance, through an urban landscape of slick, modern architecture on a mission of gathering information for a designer future. «Our business here is to be utopian», utters one of these confused, uneasy travellers. These scenes, infused with vague clichés of science fiction, are undoubtedly the weakest of the film, and emphasise the failure of the directors to envisage any way out of the bubble of the contemporary paralysis they describe.
«It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than a different form of society.»
Climate change – which, it’s hard to deny, is the most pressing issue of all for the future sustainability of humankind and, if not reined back in its pending devastations, will render concern for all other aspects of existence obsolete – is also markedly absent from a film centring on the status of utopia as an ideal. But at least by focusing our minds around the question of the future we want, the film is a wake-up call, even if it leaves it up to us to activate the power within ourselves and within our communities in order to act accordingly.