DVD Review: Surviving Progress

STUDIO: First Run Features | DIRECTOR: Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks
DVD RELEASE DATE: 9/25/2012 | PRICE: DVD $27.95
BONUSES: introduction by exec producer Martin Scorsese, extended interviews, more
NR | 86 min. | Documentary | 1.85:1 widescreen | Dolby Digital 5.1 | English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall


Like so many documentaries of the 21st century, the 2011 Canadian production Surviving Progress is more an essay on film than an audiovisual documentation of any kind. It lays out its thesis, and then backs it up with real-life examples and expert opinions before returning to home base for a tidy conclusion.

This college-paper format puts it in the same class as many documentaries devoted to starting conversations and inducing change (i.e. An Inconvenient Truth) and, as such, begins by declaring that Armageddon is upon us before somehow managing to end on a hopeful note, offering solutions we can all take part in. From a cinematic point of view, in other words, Surviving Progress is pretty standard fare. Probing, Phillip Glass-esque music combines with ironically outdated stock footage to illustrate deep thoughts that some of the world’s leading thinkers (Stephen Hawking, Margaret Atwood, John Hudson, and Jane Goodall, among them) make about modern civilization and all of its trappings. Like most films of its kind, the main message is better suited for prose, where in-depth analysis isn’t constrained by a 90-minute running time and the need to keep things moving.

Can the planet survive the trap that it progress?

But Surviving Progress isn’t really about making innovative cinema- it’s about disseminating important and urgent ideas as widely as it can through the popular medium of film. It argues quite convincingly that the way we do business on a global scale isn’t just flawed, but downright suicidal- and our concept of “progress” embraces a way of life that is doing anything but progressing. From depleting our limited resources to keeping poorer countries trapped in an endless cycle of debt, we’ve allowed a completely illogical and unsustainable point of view to drive us to the edge of extinction, all in the name of “progress”.

To some, this isn’t exactly news, and to others, such a full-force attack on our global capitalistic system will fall on willingly-deaf ears; but to those in between, who realize things aren’t really working out that well for humanity and wish they had a better grasp on how we got to this point, Surviving Progress will frame the discussion clearly, providing historical examples of previous civilizations, scientific analysis of our mental strengths & weaknesses, and intimate, human stories of average people who’s lives serve as metaphors for the social systems that affect us all. This third category is where the film’s strength lies, as you get to experience the world through the eyes of a conflicted Chinese tour guide benefiting from his country’s economic boom or a frustrated Brazilian Eco-Cop forced to fight small-time crooks while the real corporate bad guys remain untouchable.

Agree or argue with it, but at least think about it, and act- that’s the basic goal that fuels Surviving Progress, a goal deemed important enough to rope in Martin Scorsese (Hugo), who serves as executive producer of the project. Based on Ronald Wright’s 2005 book A Short History of Progress, and co-directed by documentary veterans Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, this is a doc that isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade and take us all to task for our role in this gigantic “trap of progress.” It spends a little too long repeating itself after having made its point clearly, but if you’re one of the millions of Americans using up six times your share of the world’s resources, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Bonus features include extended interviews with the film’s primary talking heads as well as author Wright and a roundtable discussion with the filmmakers taped at the Montreal International Documentary Festival in 2011.


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About Memo

Memo Salazar attempts many things and accomplishes few. His big three are making films, music, and comics, but he'll throw photography, graphic design and film criticism into the ring for good measure. He'll even make you a hand-painted t-shirt if you ask nicely. You can track his activity here when there's nothing else to do at work.