DVD Review: Surviving Progress

Surviving Progress is a documentary about how we’re getting so far ahead of ourselves with technology in an attempt to move forward, or make life easier, that we’re actually destroying the earth and its natural resources in order to do so. The DVD cover shows a person with his head stuck in the sand, because that’s what most of us tend to do when it comes to topics like this. Ironically, those who have their heads in the sand are unlikely to see the value in watching this film since, well, it would require them to take their head out of the sand to do so.

That’s not to say that the message the film is trying to deliver isn’t a worthy one, because it is; it’s just that when it comes to things on an evolutionary and global scale, your average Joe tends to think, “What difference will it make if I change my way of life while nobody else does? All that will do is make things harder for me and not do anything for the big picture. Forget that.” Of course, this may not be the right way of thinking, but if a poll was taken, it’s very likely to be the most popular answer – at least if people are being honest.

So what about those who don’t have their heads in the sand, or those who are willing to give the film a chance to speak its message to them in an attempt to change their course? Well, they’ll likely leave feeling like they know little more than they did going in, and more likely than not they’ll go back to being blissfully ignorant to the direction our species is heading in. Why is that?

Well, the filmmakers and producers bring up the fact that the film – which is based off of Ronald Wright’s best-seller, A Short History of Progress – was a challenge to fit into a single documentary, and that’s quite apparent when watching. While visually stunning, with a few solid messages and interviews throughout, the documentary simply seems to bite off more than it can chew. It jumps from place to place, spanning the entire globe in an attempt to show the massive scale that these problems exist on; though it doesn’t stop long enough on any one in particular in order to leave any lasting impact. Things are briefly touched upon, but ultimately skimmed over in favour of cramming in as many problems as possible, which leaves the film as a whole ultimately unsatisfying.

There are plenty of interviews to be found here, though some are certainly lacking charisma, which certainly helps in these information heavy types of films. Wright takes part in the film by lending his thoughts from the very start to the very end, mixed in between other interviewees. His thoughts are interesting, which isn’t surprising since he literally wrote the book on the topic. Canadian geneticist David Suzuki has one clip used from his interview; however, he’s one of the most energetic speakers on the topic of why we need to make changes. It’s unfortunate, as the film overall just lacks a flow, and while the messages are important, the story is so all over the place, that it’s easy to get lost among all the talking heads.

At one point it’s said, “We have to use less,” and that may very well be true; however, as ideal as it would be for that to happen, it just doesn’t seem to be in the cards. The rough idea is that we don’t need a giant SUV to drive to the store when an echo-friendly smaller car will work just as well, and while that’s very true, it’s just an unrealistic expectation to think that society will just up and change the way it’s been functioning for decades now.

Filmmakers Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks are to be commended for attempting to take on such a major topic; however, they may have been better off taking a piece of the story and expanding on that instead of trying to cram so much into a minute 86-minute runtime. A solution is never really touched upon, or ways that we can improve things aren’t really mentioned outside of “if everybody uses less, our resources will last longer and so will our species.”

And maybe that’s all they wanted to get across. Unfortunately, while some may walk out feeling enlightened, they probably won’t do much more than recycle a bit more for a few days following, or debate getting a bike for those trips to the store before resorting back to their car. Yes, it may seem like a cynical way to view things of this nature, but that’s just the unfortunate truth of how it is. And while Surviving Progress gives viewers an idea of our impending doom as a species if we stay on our current course, it also pretty much says that it’s the fault of all the corporations and governments that we’ve ended up at this point, and if anything, that just makes the viewer feel that much more aware that their changes in lifestyle will be like a drop in a bucket in terms of making any real progress in the right direction.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t learn from this film on some level, and try to make some changes in our lives; I’m just saying that there have to be reasonable expectations. When it comes right down to it, it very well might take a cataclysmic event to knock some sense into us – or at least, those of us who are left.

The film is visually beautiful, with some fantastic aerial shots, shots from space, and video and pictures from across the globe. The audio is also strong, with the interviews always coming through clearly, and the ambiance filled in nicely for the videos throughout.

Introduction with Martin Scorsese at the New York City Premiere – This is an 11-minute featurette that’s actually quite boring. They push Scorsese as the central figure here; however, he doesn’t show up until around the 7-8 minute mark, and the time before he arrives is basically just the filmmakers giving one another props in front of the crowd. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, it’s just not something that’s overly interesting to home viewers, and this feels tacked on just to really highlight the endorsement by Scorsese.

Behind Surviving Progress: Round table discussion with film-makers at the Montreal International Documentary Festival (in English and French with corresponding sub-titles) – This is a round-table that’s visually poor to watch, as the picture is grainy for any close-ups of those talking. It’s just over 12-minutes in length, and sees the filmmakers talking about the editing process, how everything came to be and so forth.

Extended interviews with Jane Goodall, Ronald Wright, Michael Hudson, Jim Thomas – This is exactly what it sounds like, so those looking for more information will get a bit more here. They aren’t, however, overly long, which may seem odd to some looking for more from these people.

Portrait Gallery headshot sequence with voice-over by Ronald Wright and Gary Marcus – This is another odd addition, where everyone who is in the film is shown with their name in a title card below their portrait. Meanwhile, Wright and Marcus can be heard talking in the background as the portraits are shown.

Filmmaker and Producer Biographies – These are stills for the viewer to read to give a little insight on the history of those who made this film.

Surviving Progress is a short documentary that pretty much tells us what we already know, while not giving us any reasonable ideas of how to really make a difference. Governments and large corporations are never going to change for the betterment of mankind as long as the money is pouring in, and where does that leave the little people? In short, watch this film if the topic interests you; however, don’t expect to walk out with a new outlook on life, or much more information on the subject than you did when you went in.

Cinemaginaire and Big Picture Media Corporation present Surviving Progress. Written and Directed by: Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks. Starring: Margaret Atwood, David Suzuki, Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall, Simon Johnson, Ronald Wright, Michael Hudson, Jim Thomas. Running time: 86 minutes. Rating: G. Released: September 25, 2012. Available at Amazon.com.