Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks’ film beautifully pieces together bits of history into an overarching discussion about the meaning and value of human progress, much in the same vein as Adam Curtis’s lyrical documentaries The Power of Nightmares and All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, which link disparate pieces of world culture ever so lovingly into a mesmerizing narrative. Based on Canadian author and intellectual bon vivant Ronald Wrights’ book A Short History of Progress, Roy and Crooks examine human civilization, its sustainability, and the notion of progress itself.
Dating back to the Enlightenment, the notion of progress as a good thing in and of itself has been a given. Technological and scientific advancement will lead to more advanced people guided solely by reason. Obviously. However, after dual World Wars and a handful of genocides on the human race’s scorecard, this ideal began to fell apart in the middle of the last century. More sophisticated technology didn’t lead to better people, but rather more efficient ways to commit mass slaughter. The post-modern period began the grand questioning of the progress narrative.
Surviving Progress follows in this same vein, but takes a different tack. Rather than question the idea of progress, it asks: are people, who are biologically built for hunting and scavenging, fit for the technological, economically-unbalanced world we’ve built? Early on, the film discusses “progress traps,” as Wright calls them. When early hominids hunted mammoths, they invented tools and weapons to aid their hunt. But when one figured out the strategy of steering an entire herd of mammoths into a canyon, killing them all in one fell swoop, he descended into a dead end created by progress—he became too adept too quickly. Figuring out a strategy to kill an entire herd of mammoths was ingenious, but it also effectively destroyed their future food source.
Roy and Crooks propose that we have done something like this in creating the technologically brilliant but ecologically and economically unbalanced world we inhabit. Regardless of Enlightenment dogma, progress alone isn’t beneficial without qualification, especially when it undermines the very conditions we need to survive in the long run. The Industrial Revolution gave us steam power, gas lighting, and the mass production of chemicals, but if mining and drilling and man-made chemicals destroy the environment and our health, then we essentially created the very conditions for our extinction.
While some of the nuances of their argument are a bit iffy—for example, basing the argument on the idea that our brains aren’t wired for the modern world, when really our brains wire up depending on the stimuli received—it’s overall a thought-provoking documentary, and like the films of British documentarian Adam Curtis, it’s visually compelling. Many documentary filmmakers forget that beyond the intellectual argument they’re making, they’re still making a movie and that shot composition, visual editing, and rhythm are all important. No matter how engaging a narrative is, there has to be a reason it’s filmed rather than written, and Crooks and Roy very much make a case for why this is a film. As it begins, the audience sees images of chimpanzees attempting to figure out a puzzle. Cutting in between this and other footage sets a rhythm, and by not immediately explaining the images, this sets an air of mystery, engaging the viewer from the first moment. These are techniques that many films, let alone many other docs, bungle badly, but Roy and Crooks use them effectively to create a visually and intellectually engaging film.