The Age of Stupid is far from a stupid film. This 2008 documentary is a fabulous piece of hybrid work that is already winning accolades in the UK. It is one of the most creative narratives I’ve seen used to combine fiction and non-fiction filmmaking elements. The documentary (it is, by most accounts, still a documentary) is set in the future looking back at the present age we are in and our inaction to do anything substantial to slow or stop climate change – The Age of Stupid.
Director and self-promoter extraordinaire Franny Armstrong (McLibel, Drowned Out) convinced acclaimed actor Pete Postlethwaite (pictured) to “star” in the piece, which has undoubtedly helped this documentary receive some needed press attention. Postlethwaite is a fictional caretaker of a fictional global research and archives storage facility located in the mostly melted arctic.
CGI provides the eye-candy for this futuristic building that rises out of the sea on a narrow pillar and spreads out like several metallic saucers comprising floors of stored data, preserved animals, art artifacts, etc. Postlethwaite spends the duration of the film talking to a screen which we—the audience—are on the other side of. The screen is a digital display of humanity, and our host chooses video clips from tiny banks of moving images, blowing them up for us to view, sometimes fast forwarding as we watch.
This is the clever narrative device and it works. The rest of the film is fairly standard doc fare – stories plucked from across the globe that are (sometimes awkwardly) linked through the theme of oil consumption, human ignorance, capitalism, and climate change. Some stories work better than others. Some are constructed better than others. What the narrative device enables though, is for this mish-mash of vignettes that often seem like they’ve been made by entirely different groups of filmmakers, to be strung together in a meta-narrative driven by Postlethwaite’s looking back in time.
The film also contains several animated vignettes which were in fact put together by different teams (all this information is available on the film’s site). They offer incredibly creative, fast-paced, informative and entertaining renditions of everything from the history of conquest and extraction to the insanity and stupidity of commercial bottled water. They also offer excellent breaks from stories that sometimes strain for conspicuous relevance in the grand narrative.
The end result is the best film on climate change that I have seen – and I’ve seen well over twenty. Armstrong has taken the doc genre and infused it with CGI (that while not quite Hollywood quality, still comes across as realistic and in-place), an industrious story-telling device, an incredibly talented and captivating narrator and actor, and a visually-stunning romp through the present age of over-consumption and denial. A fabulously funny, heart-wrenching and bizarre film, and a pastiche of visual delights that makes An Inconvenient Truth look like the boring slide show it actually is.
So, given my insatiable delight at having seen this film after it was sent to me by the filmmakers some months ago, one can imagine my dismay when I was told I could not program it as part of Cinema Politica, a network of campus-based volunteer-run political documentary screenings that I do the programming for. The standard response when such a myopic stance is taken by filmmakers is that they are holding off on screenings in order to wait for the global release with hopes of picking up distribution. The problem with this approach to documentary distribution in the 21st Century is that often they WON’T get distribution, no matter how fabulous their film is; and by the time they’ve organized the official release (in this case, a year after it played the festival circuit) the film is undoubtedly available for illegal download on some torrent site, somewhere out there in the wild west of cyber-world.
Lastly, and this is the kicker, grassroots or activist screenings organized ahead of commercial release only help generate much-needed “buzz” around independent films. Knowing Canada’s commercial film distribution and exhibition scene, it is highly unlikely many Canadians will have the opportunity to see or even hear about The Age of Stupid. Allowing a few small-scale grassroots screenings to take place generates buzz – gets people talking, looking for the film, doing the work, possibly even demanding it in their theatres! But filmmakers are still holding on to the 20th Century way of doing things – the industrial “roll-out” model that may work for the Summer Blockbuster, but it ultimately puts to rest the momentum of most independent, political documentaries.
Grievances aside, I hope the film does make it to Canada after its March grand opening in the UK, and I hope it doesn’t take another six months for it to do so. Otherwise, The Age of Stupid risks documenting a time of human oversight and inaction that has more to do with climate change alone.
For more information, to sign up for a DVD, to watch the trailer (which is also below), and to read about how this “crowd-funded” film was made (it’s an insanely large team of people who put this sucker together by the way), visit: theageofstupid.net.