The Age Of Stupid (12A)

Written and directed by Franny Armstrong
Screening at FACT from 29th August 2008

Reviewed by Adam Ford

The Age Of Stupid is extremely depressing, and this is not a good thing for a film that's supposed to make people want to save the planet. It’s not the sheer enormity of the unfolding environmental crisis it presents that’s so disheartening; it’s the lack of a perspective for rescuing our species and millions of others.

Acclaimed veteran actor Pete Postlethwaite, who plays The Archivist, holds a mix of documentary footage and animations together. In the year 2055, this lone survivor is putting together a package to blast off into space, a warning to take care of your ecosystem, because the one on Earth has been almost entirely wiped out by catastrophic runaway climate change. “We could have saved ourselves, but we didn't”, he dejectedly gasps. “What state of mind were we in, to face extinction and simply shrug it off?”

The bulk of the documentary footage flits between a few of the globe’s residents. Jeh Wahdia is a young Indian businessman, who has the curious idea that starting an Indian easyJet and shouting at his employees will end the poverty he occasionally glimpses from various speeding vehicles. Layefa Malemi tries to escape disease and destitution by becoming a doctor in a Nigerian village devastated by Shell Oil. Alvin DuVernay is a Shell employee who heroically rescued trapped Hurricane Katrina victims. Piers Guy is an English wind farm developer, who is constantly frustrated by anti campaigners.

So if we 'could' save ourselves, how exactly?

George Monbiot and Mark Lynas pop up and urge viewers to lobby governments for reductions in carbon emissions (whilst not mentioning they both favour nuclear power). However, the film’s political message is that millions of people are buying bottled water, taking those cheap flights, and generally making lifestyle choices that will condemn us all to rack and ruin. Time and time again, with his trademark hangdog expression, Postlethwaite disbelievingly asks why people 'were' so stupid as to commit mass suicide in this way. But he has no answer, so neither does Franny Armstrong, presumably.

When Armstrong studied zoology at University College, London, the title of her thesis was 'Is the human species suicidal?' Since then she has made four films, including the McDonald's-bashing McLibel. The first three all addressed the chaos that corporations unleash in their hunger for profit. But it seems that’s as deep as her analysis goes. For her, humanity can only be understood as atomised individuals who together form a self-destructive species. The implicit message is that people should somehow rein-in their own aspirations. She seems to condemn people flying from their poverty on easyJet just as much as she condemns George Bush for starting an oil war, because these are both ‘selfish’ acts. This is simplistic.

Yes, people – like all living organisms – will try to act out of self-interest, and under the present economic system, this will have negative environmental effects. For example, the campaigners against wind farms are concerned about their property prices, and they would be crazy not to be. For them, the tiny-in-the-scheme-of-things impact a single wind farm would have is outweighed by their dreams of a financially secure retirement. It is all perfectly understandable.

Circumstances are posing the big question of the twenty-first century more urgently with each passing second. That question is not ‘should I really be eating those special offer Chilean grapes?’ It is ‘should the system of production and distribution be organised to benefit a tiny elite, or all humanity?’

The planet-wide social crisis is providing conditions where billions of people’s short- and long-term interests are aligning.

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