Food, Inc., Waterlife, Moon: Dystopia, Here We Come

Just when you thought it might be getting safer out there with the economy slowly crawling it’s way out of the tank and housing prices showing some signs of recovery,  don’t get too comfortable.  There are reminders that not all is well in other sectors of our world.

The films Food, Inc., Waterlife and Moon, have given me some insights into other global woes – real and potential – that lurk beneath the surface of some things we take for granted as denizens of this planet.

Food, Inc.

Produced and Directed by Robert Kenner, http://www.foodincmovie.com

Food, Inc.

Food, Inc.

Food, Inc. relays information in a fairly straightforward way about the perils of our overly-mechanized food production systems without resorting to scare tactics. Maybe it’s a little slick in it’s own “packaging” but the film has a focussed message that summarizes how so much of our food is mass produced and the dangers inherent in this system.  It seems our Achille’s Heel is our busy lives requiring convenience foods supplied by corporate manufacturing systems that produce processed and fast foods which now dominate most of our food production and consumption.  It’s no news that this food is not the healthiest.  This has been known for quite awhile.  What is surprising is how difficult these systems have made it for independent farmers to compete in a marketplace to provide us with organic alternatives.  This ranges from impossible financial competition to direct capitalistic bullying complete with lawsuits.

The end result is that while some can seek out organic food alternatives, others simply can’t afford them.  One striking story was about a family of four with tight economic means.  The father, the major bread-winner, had been diagnosed with diabetes.  It was further demonstrated that it was far cheaper to feed this family with fast food hamburgers than to buy fresh fruit and vegetables at the grocery store.   A pre-teen daughter was told they couldn’t buy pears because they could only afford to get two of them with the money allotted in their meager grocery budget.  This reminded me of scenes from the film Soylent Green where Edward G. Robinson describes how good real food was when he was a boy to a “pre-NRA spokesman” Charlton Heston.  That film was made in 1973 – thirty-six years ago.  It was one of a number of dystopian-themed films made at the time that reflected a recognition that we were headed down the wrong path environmentally.  Have things changed for the better since then?  Apparently not.

At the end of Food, Inc, we are told what we can do (in a somewhat patronizing way) to change the current state of food production and consumption.  Obviously, buy organic and locally grown foods when you can.  But wait.  There’s a catch.  Free range livestock and organic fruits and vegetables are nurtured and grown with water from our fresh water supply systems.   So, how healthy is our water supply these days?

Waterlife

Directed by Kevin McMahon, www.ourwaterlife.com

Waterlife is a film that summarizes the current state of the water systems within the Great Lakes.  I have been aware of some clean up and revitalization of these waters over the years which was started in the ’70′s.   The water quality is cleaner and better than it was then but it is still not quite clean enough.  And, it is far worse in some lakes than in others.   And while there is still some game fishing in the healthier lakes, zebra muscles and lamprey eels are increasingly stealing their habitats.  Not that you would want to eat most of these fish anyway – they contain too many toxins, trace metals, etc.   But I did learn something a bit more alarming than these already known conditions.  And this has to do with our drinking water supply.


Some of the drinking water in that region naturally comes from or is intermingled with waters from the Great Lakes.  This is inevitable as these bodies of water comprise about 20% of the entire earth’s fresh water supply.  Portions of these waters, along with runoff, are reclaimed and sanitized through our water treatment systems and then delivered through our household taps to our lips.

Sewage treatment plants have not changed significantly in many years.  They were designed to separate particulate matter and then kill off all harmful bacteria.  They perform these functions very well.  However, within the last thirty to fifty years, we have increasingly added other toxins and chemicals which cannot be removed by these processes.  For instance, anyone who has thrown outdated prescription drugs down the drain of their sink or flushed them down the toilet has unwittingly contributed to this problem.  So, when you fill out that form at the doctor’s office asking what drugs you are currently taking – well, you just might not quite exactly know.

And, it actually gets scarier.  The concentration of industrial pollutants in the air and water on Lake Huron in “Chemical Valley” near Sarnia, Ontario is particularly alarming.  Studies on some of these toxins in greater concentrations has provided insight into their effects on human genetics and gender reproduction trends.  In Sarnia, there have been recent dramatically observable demographic changes in the population base of the indigenous native American Indian tribe there.  The ratio of female to male births has changed from about 1:1 to nearly 2:1 within the past several decades.  Needless to say, statistically speaking this is not normal.  This fact was further explored in the recent CBC Documentary, The Disappearing Male, http://www.cbc.ca/documentaries/doczone/2008/disappearingmale.html.  Apparently, male genetics are more susceptible to substances called Endocrine Disruptors which adversely affect the hormone systems in developing fetuses.  Major contaminants attributed to this include synthetic chemicals,  Bisphenol A and Phalates, used in the production of plastics and many consumer items. What items you ask?  They are used to soften plastics and also in other common products such as pvc pipes, medical equipment, dvd’s and oh, yeah – baby bottles.  And I suspect in many more plastic bottles we drink fluids from everyday.

So, all of us are drinking water that contains these contaminants as well as many other chemicals that have been dumped into our respective water supplies.  What can we do to avoid these contaminants? Drink bottled spring water – but what about the plastic bottle?  Go to Lourdes?  Better get a chemical analysis of the water first.

Moon

Directed by Duncan Jones

Moon is a bit of a throw back to classic sci-fi and dystopian films from the past forty years or so.  That’s why I wanted to see it.  I have been hankering for Sci-Fi story telling in movie form that can carry a non-pandering message without excessive violence, gore, dumb characterizations or plot lines and a minimum of exploding cars or machines.  While it is derivative of many past sci-fi and dystopian films (Silent Running, Solaris, Alien, Outland, 2001, to name the obvious) it does include current thematic twists within the story line.  Set in the fairly near future, it seems there is a tidy solution to our increasing energy needs.  Turns out there is an energy rich element produced from ore mined on the Moon.  All we have to do is get a big powerful corporation to build a sophisticated mining operation there complete with a technically superior robot and one man to oversea the whole operation.   The sole mining operator, Sam Bell, has a three year contract which is almost up.  It’s a really good thing because not only is he very lonely, he is starting to hallucinate as well.   I will not reveal any more plot elements so as not to spoil a viewing experience for anyone.   Let’s just say, that when there is a powerful corporation involved ethics regarding an employee’s well-being seem always in short supply.  And while you can guess what is happening to the main character as the film proceeds, it is very enjoyable watching a great performance by Sam Rockwell as the lead character as well as to listen to Kevin Spacey who provides the evenly-modulated voice of the technically superior robot-babysitter ala HAL in 2001.  Though the story line may have been a bit thin for a feature film, I really enjoyed the fact that there were no ear-splitting, gratuitous explosions and no “just-because-you-can-doesn’t-mean-you-should” special effects.  But there are ethical questions posed about recent and future scientific breakthroughs currently within our grasp.  In many ways, this was classic sci-fi story telling and it was refreshment for my soul.

Moving past dystopia

Aside from the obvious dystopian themes, what do these films have in common and why have they surfaced now?  We are currently facing a time filled with uncertainty about the future of everything – economics, energy and environment.  Food, water and energy are the most basic resources needed for human survival.   What all these films point out is our largely collective ignorance about how these most critical resources are made available to us.  There are very few among us that understand the mechanics in place for production and delivery of these commodities.  Is this because we are that lazy or myopic in not being aware about these things?  Yes and No.  These systems have been created in a relatively short period of time compared to the longevity of our residence on this planet.  Most have been put into place within the past fifty years or less.  However, we have become complicit and willing victims of these systems because they have made life easy for us.   This convenience has come with some very large hidden costs which will no doubt become more evident as time passes.

In Soylent Green, the plot hinged on the discovery of how that food substance was made and what it was made from.   We don’t have to do that.  These filmmakers have done that for us.   All we have to do is watch their films and react to them in constructive ways.   What they bring to our attention is the need to be educated about all of these things – and in a hurry.   The fact is, how can you possibly fix anything if you don’t know how it works in the first place?

So, now we have several very convoluted economic and environmental mazes from which we must find our way out of.  The incentives are huge.  But what we all need is some motivation to actually move forward to find our way out of this mess.   May I suggest a very large chunk of locally and organically produced, artisinal cheese?


Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Hunger, Perseverance, Change

still from Hunger

detail of still from Hunger

I recently saw the film Hunger.   Aside from my interest in the subject matter, I was equally compelled to see this film because it was directed by British artist Steve McQueen.  The film is about the 1981 hunger strike by IRA protesters in Belfast’s Maze Prison that resulted in the deaths of ten inmates including their leader, Bobby Sands.

I was curious to see how a conceptual artist such as McQueen would handle a narrative approach to a thorny, political subject and how he would depict the revered – and reviled – culturally iconic IRA activist, Sands.   I was also prepared to be visually assaulted after reading the many reviews online that describe the harsh tactics used by both protesters and prison guards in the film.   (The many reviews and screenings of this film have much to do with the fact that it won the Camera D’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival last year.)   And yes, the film might put you off your food for a little while but it is, in fact, a compelling, artistic visual buffet.

I am also personally interested in this time period in Irish history because of my first visit there in the 1980′s.   This was a few years after the hunger strike and tensions were still very high in the North.   I have never forgotten the images of the barrier between north and south then – British soldiers armed with machine guns at the checkpoint barracade with barbed wire running over the top.  And the graffitti – the telltale signs of ongoing civil disobedience.

The IRA hunger strike had made a great impression on McQueen as a child who was fascinated by the idea of human beings using their bodies as political weapons.  He felt that it was a story that needed to be told – and in narrative form.  He believed that was the best format for this specific piece of work, in part, to reach a larger audience.   But asked after the great success of this film if he planned a career as a feature filmmaker he said, ” I’m not in love with the 35mm camera any more than I’m in love with the paintbrush. It’s the idea I’m in love with.”

Interestingly, the film does not engage the obvious politics.  Instead, the story is told through the thematic prisms of “man’s inhumanity to man” and personal perseverance and integrity in support of religious and political ideology.  McQueen also chose to tell this story primarily through imagery.  The film itself is 96 minutes long.  Only about a third of the film is propelled by dialogue.  Most of this happens during an 18 minute verbal tennis match between Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a visiting priest (Liam Cunningham).  The conversation is a debate about the motivations behind -and the ultimate value – of a hunger strike that would no doubt result in the deaths of some of the protesters and whether or not this would bring about any tangible change in the political stalemate between the IRA and the British government at the time.

This scene is sandwiched between two larger, almost entirely visual parts of the film.  The beginning includes visuals, in painterly detail, describing the ordinary rituals of a prison guard getting ready for a day at work.  The scene at the breakfast table evokes a normalcy that includes close ups of crumbs on the napkin in this man’s lap only to be subverted by a shot of his hands with bruised knuckles.  Obviously, this does not depict anything ordinary.   We are later given more visual cues about this man’s life as he leaves for work, looking up and down the street and checking under his car for a bomb before he heads to work.

So, how does a conceptual artist largely known for experimental filmmaking and installation work end up making this sort of film and what of it?  Well, it doesn’t hurt to win Britain’s top artistic award, the Turner Prize.  McQueen won this in 1999 for an experimental film that was somewhat of an homage to Buster Keaton.   Subsequently, he was approached by a BBC exec who asked him if he wanted to make a film – for which he was able to select the subject matter.   Nice work if you can get it.   McQueen will also represent the UK at this year’s Venice Biennale.

Talent, opportunity and serendipity often make careers but not always.   Few artists ever reach the acclaim of someone such as McQueen.   He was able to parlay his obvious talent and background in experimental work into a narrative medium.  He cared about getting this story in front of a lot of people and chose this specific medium in order to do it.  And that’s the interesting thing – he chose a narrative medium to tell an important story to a large number of people with no apparent artistic compromises.  This is rare.  Hunger seems to be a true example of an artist creating a great piece of work at the right time and in the right way.

A great interview with McQueen about the film can be heard on The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell at http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/tt.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)