In the filmmaking community, the latest feature from McLibel director Franny Armstrong, The Age of Stupid (Spanner Films), is generating at least as much attention for the way it made it to the screen as for the subject matter. While the topic of climate change is enough to inspire hundreds of thousands to take to the streets as activists, the story behind the making of Stupid – primarily the fact that it was funded solely by “crowdsourcing,” or scores of financial contributions from around the world – is stirring up a similar fervor amongst funding-challenged creators. Take this breathless recommendation from filmmaker Jon Reiss in The Huffington Post: “You should go see this film not because I feel it is a great film (I haven’t seen it yet!) but because you will be participating in the rebirth of film culture.”
That’s an interesting sentiment, perhaps even laudable in an era when documentary filmmakers are scraping for ever-dwindling funding. But a film, like any work of art or creative endeavor, should be appraised and valued not strictly for the behind-the-scenes methods that brought it to fruition, but for the work itself. All the talk about crowdsourcing, community outreach and grassroots promotion (all of which Armstrong has proven incredibly adept at) would amount to so much blather if the film itself was junk.
Thankfully, The Age of Stupid isn’t that, and it’s an important film on a number of levels.
Billed as a docudrama, Stupid frames the story in the year 2055, with veteran British actor Pete Postlethwaite (pictured) portraying The Archivist, a man who has holed himself up within a tower just outside of an arctic reduced to deep floodwater. From his perch he has access to a huge digital archive of the history of the world, and from that archive he is compiling a time capsule of sorts to warn any other sentient beings about the foolhardy descent into extinction that claimed humanity. It’s an interesting premise and one that could have all gone Pete Tong, but Postlethwaite handles the role brilliantly, and the concept marries the movie’s dependence on archival footage with a captivating narrative.
The Archivist charts the climate change-accelerated demise of Planet Earth via a touch screen, with which he calls up various clips, including the footage shot by Armstrong of several central characters. They include French mountaineer Fernand Pareau, who mourns the melting of the glaciers he has climbed for most of his life; Indian entrepreneur Jeh Wadia, who is using his considerable wealth to create a low-cost Indian airline; young Iraqis Jamila and Adnan Bayyoud who have experienced firsthand the brutality of the West’s lust for oil; former Shell Oil scientist Alvin DuVernay (who coined the film’s title); Nigerian medical student Layefa Malemi, who sells black market diesel to supplement her meager income, and British couple Piers and Lisa Guy, who share a dedication to warning the world of the dangers of climate change and are also on the front lines, with Piers being a wind-farm developer trying to convince the citizens of Bedfordshire to value sustainable energy over sight lines.
These characters’ stories are interwoven with assorted footage clips and animated vignettes that riff on various themes, such as consumerism and carbon emissions. And while they sometimes break the flow of the narrative, the vignettes, each sporting its own style of animation and narration, provide the occasional welcome break from the gloom and doom of the dominant theme.
Lest anyone think that all climate change documentaries are created equal, The Age of Stupid is not An Inconvenient Truth. Beyond the science-fiction narrative conceit, it’s also a faster, more aggressive animal – the rapid-fire cuts, pop culture jabs and CGI flourishes indicate this is a film made with a young audience in mind. Sometimes that works against the film – the cuts don’t always allow for important points to settle, and some cultural references actually detract from the scenes (as in the use of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking” for a scene in which the two young Iraqis sell sneakers on a Jordan street). And the CGI depictions of the ravaged world of the future, in sharp contrast to Postlethwaites’ touch screen “edit bay” sequences, aren’t entirely convincing.
But these are minor quibbles. Yes, The Age of Stupid does represent an important milestone in the funding of independent film. And conversely, its fast pace and emotional charge probably won’t do much to win over any skeptics (or “deniers,” as they’re called by climate change activists). But most importantly, as a film that dares to challenge and ultimately smash through the complacency surrounding one of the most vital issues of our time, The Age of Stupid hits the mark, and then some.