The world is rapidly changing around us. It always has done. Change is one thing that is constant.
Although with global warming, rising sea levels, growing inequality, the digital revolution there is force behind the notion that we are living through a period of significant transition – both a time of fear and opportunity.
Transitions happen at a global, community and personal level. They can make the world, societies, the land and environment along with people healthier, happier and more sustainable. Or they can move us towards an ugly society and barren world.
A film festival occurring in Melbourne and Adelaide is dedicated to exploring the idea of transitions in the world through documentaries. The Transitions Film Festival, suggests that
“We sit at the crossroads between utopia and dystopia, facing the immense and urgent challenges of climate change, peak oil, economic collapse, resource overconsumption and overpopulation, while at the same time hovering on the precipice of an age of abundance, driven by innovations in robotics, telecommunications, scientific breakthroughs and a growing consciousness of our collective predicament and fragile interconnectedness. The challenge of our generation is to consciously guide this transformation toward a sustainable civilization.”
The Festival, which opens in Melbourne on 18 February and in Adelaide on 20 May, brings together films “dedicated to spotlighting the complex challenges, cutting-edge ideas, creative innovations and mega-trends that are redefining what it means to be human.”
Green Agenda had the opportunity to preview three of the films being shown at the Festival and talk to the filmmakers. We recommend the films we saw and the festival as a whole. In particular, we were keen to discuss the concept of transition and, in this time of significant change, how do we ensure that transitions are making a more equitable and sustainable world and not a more ugly and dystopian world.
The filmmakers we spoke to are:
Jared P Scott who co-directed Requiem for the American Dream, a film incorporating interviews from over a four year period with Professor Noam Chomsky who unpacks the principles that have brought us to the crossroads of historically unprecedented inequality – tracing a half-century of policies designed to favour the most wealthy at the expense of the majority.
Shalini Kantayya who directed Catching the Sun, a celebration of the green energy revolution that is exploding across the planet. The film explores the power of the solar revolution to solve the world’s most pressing environmental and social problems.
Steve Bradshaw who directed Anthropocene, in which an international community of scientists give us their take on the anthropocene, showing us today’s ecological and climatic changes from a new and deeply thought-provoking perspective.
Along with the notion of transitions and the content of these documentary films, Green Agenda also dicussed our interest in exploring the intersection between art and activism. Along similar lines, last year we published a speech from Alex Kelly exploring these issues. Alex is the Impact Producer for This Changes Everything and is speaking at the Transitions Film Festival after the screening of Anthropocene.
Green Agenda Editor, Clare Ozich, talked with the filmmakers about thier films focusing on four themes. Below is an edited transcript of the discussion.
1. Please tell us about the film and the transition/s at its centre.
Jared P Scott, Requiem for the American Dream: The transition at the heart of the film revolves around the idea of financial inequality and distribution of wealth. In this film Noam Chomsky makes plain principles of concentration of wealth and power. So we work through ten of these principles, these mechanisms, and how what Adam Smith calls the Masters of Mankind control different aspects of society, the financial system, the social system to influence power and to perpetuate the cycle that wealth begets power and power begets wealth.
Clare Ozich: In the film we get a sense not just of the transition since the financial crisis of the last 6 years or the onset of neoliberalism over the last 30-40 years, you are actually tracing back this concentration of wealth and power a lot longer.
JPS: Chomsky has this depth and breadth of knowledge he is able to pull from his mind. Most often times he was telling us quotes verbatim. We love doing that in our films. We love using primary source material. We wanted to show that, for those who don’t know Professor Chomsky well, they might hear him talk and say well that is just some kind of anarchist, leftist rebel. But if you look at what he is saying, he is just quoting Adam Smith and what a refreshing perspective he has on the Wealth of Nations. The idea that Adam Smith is talking about ideas of sympathy. The idea that the free market has to be within a certain spectrum, that it has to exist with certain ideas and rules, that we have to be worried and fearful of the maxim of the Masters of Mankind, the idea that profits trump everything. It is a really refreshing perspective for those that want to talk about the invisible hand when discussing free market capitalism. It is interesting to see that Adam Smith has a more sophisticated idea and Chomsky brings it out.
wealth begets power and power begets wealth
On issues of democracy and the issue of equality – you have to look back at the thoughts of the founding fathers and he points to James Madison – one of the greatest supporters of freedom and democracy at that time. Yet even Madison was struggling with this idea – if we give too many rights to non-white non-male non-landowners we might have problems. In the history of this country – in Australia, any country that had a colonising process – a lot of rights were only for certain types of people. So you hear that in clean crisp dialogue. We cite those conversations from the Constitutional Convention and it’s a revelation. It is one of those moments of protecting the [powerful] minority from the majority. It’s really fascinating. And then he goes back and talks about how Aristotle struggled the same thing. But then again you still have slaves and other issues we can’t get into. It has never been a clear process. But he points out that this struggle between control and domination from above and trying to mobilise the struggle for rights from below has been a constant tug-of-war throughout history.
We have made tremendous strides but we still have a long way to go. There are still plenty of things to fight for. We still have power and we have to exercise it.
Shalini Kantayya, Catching the Sun: In a global sense the films is about the global energy transition through solar energy. Although the film is really about workers and entrepreneurs in the US and in China who are pushing that transition.
Clare Ozich: Along with that broader transition, the film also contains some personal stories that can be seen as moments of transition. Can you talk a little about those?
SK: In the making of the film I met people who inspired me. People like Eddie who are from post-industrial cities like Richmond [California] where industries have gone abroad and left a generation of Americans without much hope for economic opportunity or mobility. In the making of this film I really saw the light go on in Eddie’s eyes and saw him beam for the first time when he makes a radio play off solar energy. I saw him beam with pride when he brings solar to his neighbours; the look of pride on his face when he explains how much they will save as a result of his work. For someone like Eddie – who starts the film with very little economic opportunity – you really see him have access to the American dream again through solar energy and have access to a ladder of economic opportunity. As a result of his employment through solar he has moved to a better neighbourhood and he and his girlfriend are still together. I felt there are these doom and gloom stories of climate change which is sort of how clean energy has been framed up until now but there is another story that is missing which is really about how solar is going to change the lives of millions of people – workers and individuals – all over the world.
CO: I thought it was one of the strengths of the movie to make that connection between the energy revolution from the climate perspective and also from the social justice perspective. You also tell the story in the movie of the Green for All project and Van Jones and the twin message of addressing climate and addressing jobs. But it was a project that got stalled in the bureaucracy.
SK: Absolutely. I think the big exciting idea for solar is that – well for centuries here in the US the way we got electricity was that governments formed these really powerful monopolies and fossil fuel companies and that is how we got the electrification of the US. It consolidated wealth and power in the hands of a few. The really exciting part about solar is that it actually puts power – as Danny says in the film – both literally and figuratively in the hands of people. The really big exciting idea is that we can redistribute and democratise our energy system while we fight climate change.
The really exciting part about solar is that it actually puts power both literally and figuratively in the hands of people.
Steve Bradshaw, Anthropocene: Our film tells the story of the planet from its inception to a distant future when humans have long since vanished. The transitions in this story, the decisions we make – as Dr Monica Berger says – will be embedded in the planet’s geology, in the rock. Some geologists believe we recently – just when is a matter for debate – transited into a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene. All previous epochs were created by Nature – as in asteroids, volcanoes – but the Anthropocene is the term scientists are using for an epoch created largely by the influence of humanity. We’re changing the air, the seas, the soil, wildlife and the whole biosphere. And all this is happening quite suddenly. Nobody knows how long the Anthropocene will last – it may be for millions of years or it may just be an event layer, a frontier, just a couple of thousand years, marking a transition between the previous Holocene epoch and whatever else is to come. In that case the Anthropocene would be – to borrow the title of a Van Morrison album – a period of transition and little else. It’s now up to us, humanity, to determine what to make of the Anthropocene. The crucial point is that unlike other natural forces – even, as Andrew Revkin says in the film, the organic cyanobacteria which created oxygen and helped enable life – we’re conscious of the transitions we’re effecting. We know what we’re doing, that we’re re-engineering the planet, and creating an artificial Earth. We’re actually trying to do that, as a species, and we ought to ‘fess up to it. I should say that, as a filmmaker, I’m not trying to call the shots in what’s still an eagerly contested academic debate. But declaring that we live in the Anthropocene would be a good start.
We know what we’re doing, that we’re re-engineering the planet, and creating an artificial Earth.
2. As filmmakers what do you see as the role of these kinds of documentaries in the world today? What do you hope to achieve with your film?
Jared P Scott, Requiem for the American Dream: I am a partner at a company called PF Pictures based in Brooklyn New York. Our position is that we want to use film as a tool for social change. So we make films about social issues. We made a climate action film called Destruction. We helped mobilise 40 000 people here in NY. There was also a very large protest and mobilisation in Melbourne. We made a film called Do the Math with Bill McKibbon. We are directing a forthcoming film called The Age of Consequences about climate change and security.
What we hope to achieve with Requiem for the American Dream and our other social change films – first and foremost we have to recognise that film-making is the prevailing storytelling medium of our time. What a great way send information, what a great way to inspire, educate and galvanise people to act. As a second point – anyone can go see a film. We might not all be as media literate as I would like and how we interrupt information but we are all pretty good at it and we all have seen something, we have all gone to the theatre, everyone watches movies. Anyone with a computer or a tablet can watch a film, particularly a film like this. We try to make our films engaging. It is low barrier. Anyone can talk about it. You can get people together and have a discussion about it. This is the third point. Films are platforms for discussion. You don’t walk out of a film going ok now I have it figured out. You can’t condense these huge problems down to a simple solution.
The ask in this film is to go out and try and have a form of participatory democratic experience and that is a life-long thing. You don’t just do that by watching the film and signing a petition. Our films have an ask. With Disruption it was simple – wherever you are go out and march. Sometimes our asks are clear and direct and sometimes they are – go out and spend the rest of your life trying to be better. Films are not end points they are a starting point. So we encourage organisations, schools, universities, whether it is the Elks Club or 350.org or Oxfam or whoever it might be to go out. Everyone wants to give their membership something to do right? We are all highly engaged – a lot of us are highly engaged – in what is happening online, what is happening in the news and we want to do something. The first thing anyone asks is “What can I do?” We know these groups have to stay afloat. They send us lots of emails about donating and they send us a lot of activity online and part of that is good. The internet connects us in ways that are incredibly powerful. It is great for organising. It is great for disseminating information. At the same time we need to have offline experiences. Films allow that. These shared experiences. We encourage people – we are working with local groups, with the Bernie Sanders campaign here in the US right now [groups like Represent Us working on campaign finance reform] – we want these guys to show the film and afterwards have your discussion towards your needs. We really encourage that. We pride ourselves on having those strong relationships.
Shalini Kantayya, Catching the Sun: I work across genres, fiction and non-fiction. I feel like documentary is powerful medium because I really believe that story leads to action. As Roger Ebert said films are empathy machines. They create empathy for people we have never met before. As we are on the verge of a new future. If the nine billion of us are going to have a future together on this planet we have to find new innovations and inventions and ways of living in the world. I think the first step of that is actually a story, creating a new story and so I see my practice as a documentary filmmaker is offering a small part of that new story.
documentary is powerful medium because I really believe that story leads to action
The mission of my company, 7th Empire Media, is to use imaginative media to shed light on issues of human rights and a sustainable planet. My prior work was called a Drop of Life and is was a sci-fi about the future of water based between India and the US. Throughout my work I am always interested in how environmental crisis in the future is going to impact relationships between people and disparities between rich and poor. A lot of my work has to do with environmental themes but really they are about human stories and about people.
Steve Bradshaw, Anthropocene: I’ve made lots of films that have drawn attention to single issues – some of the first, I think, about global warming back in the Eighties. Mostly these were for the BBC, where it’s legitimate to investigate various disorders in the world, but you don’t really set out to campaign for a specific outcome if that’s disputed. With Anthropocene, I had my English teacher’s warning in the back of my mind – don’t spend your life crawling around the frontiers of knowledge with a hand lens. And I enjoyed the chance to tell what in secular terms is kind of the ultimate ‘Big Story’. But I guess I’ve still done that BBC thing of trying to give different points of view a fair shout. At least about how we’re affecting the planet (I’m not a geologist and don’t want to step into their academic debates).
One thing that attracted me to our structure for ‘Anthropocene’ – talking mainly to the scientists advising on whether to make the term formal – was we would have both optimistic and more pessimistic strands in the narrative. And I like the fact that these narrators – there’s no commentary in the film – agree on the facts but give them rather a different spin. So I hope, as one of my old editors used to say, people can go and have a drink after the film and argue about the issues – and both environmental optimists and pessimists can find evidence in the film. One thing I am keen on is that the film – if we can get it out to schools and colleges worldwide – offers a common secular narrative at a time of sometimes competing fundamentalisms. Personally I’m a pessimist some days and an optimist others (blame that on the English weather maybe) but I do think the environmental movement has often not admitted we have set out as a species to create a pretty much artificial world… starting with fire, dogs and wheat. Let’s just try and do it better.
3. I am interested in how transitions come about – who creates them, what circumstances are needed, why do they occur. What does your film say about these questions?
Jared P Scott, Requiem for the American Dream: One point I want to make is that I am New Yorker and based in the US. Chomsky is obviously a US citizen. The film has “American” in the title. It is a US film but these principles are global. These ideas are global. Even the American Dream – every country has it as an idea and some kind of understanding of the power of the American dream. Chomsky at one point in the film talks about the bizarreness of being called un-American as an attempt to vilify and marginalise him by certain people. The same could be said in Australia – an un-Australian kind of way. These things can be applied in a lot of different places. So these principles are universal. Obviously we have a global economy now and the Masters of Mankind are calling the shots in the US and also calling the shots globally. It is not that difficult. That is a crucial point to understand. It is very universal.
Another thing we have to realise with transition is that Chomsky at one point says – lays out these principles – and I don’t want to spoil them, go see the film to hear more about them – but he says unless they are reversed it is going to be an extremely ugly society. A society so ugly I [Chomsky] don’t know if I would want to live in it, certainly won’t want my children to live in it. If you think about these principles as principles of how to concentrate wealth and power and for an unjust society well then the opposite hopefully would be a just society.
So one of the principles is attacks on solidarity. Well I believe we should have greater solidarity. We want to have stronger safety nets, that we want to have stronger communities. These are all good things. That is a principle of a just society. So that I think looking at the opposite of what these principles are we can see what a just society is.
Chomsky also has the wherewithal to say I can’t say with absolute clarity what the principles of a just society are. We should try things and see if they work. We need to keep finding ways to work for greater equality and freedom. He didn’t give is a playbook. He just said these are the mechanisms that are creating this unprecedented inequality in the world.
Shalini Kantayya, Catching the Sun: I think the really exciting part is that we are on the verge of a transition that has already started to happen. Most of the new energy coming online is renewable energy. I think what the film says is that this is already happening. Although we’ll need to turn the levers of power, these changes are already happening in cities and states around the world because energy is a local issue. The exciting part is that it is up to ordinary citizens to make change at the local level.
Clare Ozich: One of the interesting things with the film is that you do show a broad spectrum of people including the Green Tea Party and their slogan that Energy Freedom and Liberty is an American value – speaking to shared values across the partisan political spectrum.
SK: I made my first friend in the Tea Party. We don’t talk about anything else. We definitely don’t talk about gun rights. But Debbie and I have a real admiration for each other and I think that is how the world changes, is that people who sit really far from each other find a place of commonality and start to like each other as people and start to have that conversation that builds on alliances. And I feel like that is what happened with me and Debbie and the conversations we had, many of which were surprising. If you are very left you have these stereotypes of what it is like to be very right. It was a wonderful experience to work with Debbie and she is a real firecracker.
Steve Bradshaw, Anthropocene: Our film doesn’t much look at the question of agency. We tend slightly to take a Macaulay, rather than Tolstoy, view of history – emphasizing the role of individuals. That’s maybe because the story’s easier to illustrate that way! Although I would point out Crutzen, McNeill and Steffen tended to do the same in their original paper, “Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” So I’m aware you could make, say, a Marxian critique of our film. However we do look briefly at the geopolitics – John McNeill believing the Cold War provoked humanity to take otherwise unwanted risks, Mao trying haplessly to industrialize China. And Will Steffen saying the technologies were already there before his so-called ‘Great Acceleration’ , so there must have been a human agency for this transition – new neoliberal structures in his contemplation. And I think a lot of transitions – creating an artificial planet, the movement into cities, the extinction of species by humans – are unarticulated by our leaders, and are more swarm-like movements, ‘Wisdom of the Crowds’ moments, or demotic decisions. Here’s an upcoming example for you… one Anthropocene Working Group member believes humanity may now evolve genetically as a more urban species – cities remaking us, where cyborgs may fail. A bit like the latest brain science, I think we as a species make these big bold – who knows catastrophic – decisions before we’ve actually articulated them to ourselves, consciously and collectively.
4. Transitions can be scary and daunting or exciting and full of opportunity. The promotional material for the Transitions Film Festival talks about how we are at the crossroads between utopia and dystopia. How do you feel about the future? Why? What is the take home message about the potential for positive transition in your film?
Jared P Scott, Requiem for the American Dream: I think the most powerful point that Professor Chomsky made – he said this in every single interview when we asked him what is the answer – he kept returning to a quote by his late-friend Howard Zinn, and I paraphrase – that the small unknown deeds of unknown people bend the course of history. It is all those people, it is us, who aren’t at the podium, who aren’t on television, we are not the ones necessarily getting all the attention. I think movements have become more distributive these days. I once heard that movements have leaders and revolutions don’t. It is all of us. As has been said – don’t confuse the magic of the moment with the power of the movement. MLK [Martin Luther King] didn’t just show up at a podium and give this great speech. There was months and years of fighting and struggling and organising. There were a million people that gave up their jobs and left their homes to go and march. It is all those people that made that happen. I think Chomsky – if you ask him about his involvement and role in activism he reflects it back and says – I am not a good activist. [Chomsky says] I sit here and I try and give people some thought and they are the ones out there making a difference. So I think that is the most important piece and the most powerful element in line with the festival’s theme is that it is up to us, the unknown people the unknown masses that will change the course of history.
Shalini Kantayya, Catching the Sun: I feel like the film really puts it in our own hands. What the film does is show the stories of people who are extraordinarily brave and pushing this transition. It also shows this is the inevitable future, that clean energy isn’t just about reducing carbon emissions but is also about creating a more economically efficient system of working in the 21st century. I think the film really just talks about the brave people who are pushing that transition. Van [Jones] says it best, that we might lose some battles – as Van does in the film – but that ultimately this is the inevitable future. And I do believe that standing flatfoot where we are, if we look ahead a 100 years we will have a clean energy future. Van says it very clearly in the film, if we have a future this is it. I believe it is just about how. If people will cling fingers and toes to last century’s technology or whether people will be innovators and push forward, in policy, economics and technology in all these different ways.
I feel like the film really puts it in our own hands.
Steve Bradshaw, Anthropocene: I agree with the promotional material! Wish I’d thought of that! Maybe we should all get our Robert Johnson records out! Beware the man in the Big Straw Hat!… Eric Odada also calls the Anthropocene terrifying. On the other hand Monica Berger says she find it – while kind of Western – a hopeful term. Myself – I’m sorry to indulge in what Lester Bangs once called the aesthetic of the tease (he was thinking of Steely Dan), but I did want the film to be an ambiguous and open-ended narrative. I liked the term ‘Anthropocene’ because it felt a bit like a JG Ballard SF novel title – as you suggest, hovering with alluring but disturbing ambivalence between utopia and dystopia. What I would say, I have some sympathy with Andrew Revkin’s ennui with finger-pointing, guilt-inducing narratives (maybe because I made one too many…). I guess I would crib The Byrds here, and say somehow I know everything’s going to work out alright. I can’t quite give up on a species that invents the internet and then fills it with stuff about dogs and cats.
Go see the films at the Transitions Film Festival or look out for them on general release or online in the near future. There are lots more documentaries on other transitions at the festival – check out the program. And share your thoughts on the films in the comments below.