by Caroline Savery
I have always been fascinated by how narrative and stylistic innovations in the film medium seem to reflect (sometimes pre-cognitively, like the “canary in the coalmine”) the overall state of a society’s collective unconscious. I first studied this phenomenon in 2003 when I wrote a 30-page thesis paper about the historical emergence of the horror genre in 1931 with Universal Studio’s Dracula and Frankenstein, which arrived not coincidentally at the peak of American anxiety about the Great Depression. Americans needed an outlet for the vague threats posed to their lives by the economic disasters of the Great Depression–hence, a genre of film based entirely around the cathartic release of terror through a fictional story.
Since age 13 I have been enmeshed in a passionate affair with the challenges of creative filmmaking. To me, film represents the most comprehensive artistic medium, combining visuals, sound design, editing, acting, story, and art design, to create a complex experience which at times seems to almost mimic the interior human mind. There are a lot of elements the director must control for, but when these elements cooperate to express deep human themes, the result can be positively transcendental. I have experimented with a wide variety of genres in over two dozen short films, each one a different genre, as I was driven by a fascination with how genre conventions encode and telegraph an audience’s expectations, and how playing with those expectations creates a moment of fresh, open mindedness. As I grew more mature in my filmmaking capacity and activist sensibilities, I became primarily attracted to documentary films for their power to convey compelling emotional “calls to action” around urgent social issues. I could think of nothing more I wanted to do with my life than to harness the emotional and artistic power of film for the purpose of supporting valuable social causes.
The ancient art of storytelling, combined with film’s power to model human psychology and perception, makes film extremely powerful in its capacity to influence people’s emotions. Thus, film can very easily be used for propaganda, to coerce people into aligning with any political agenda, through the manipulation of story and emotional resonance. As an activist, this makes me uncomfortable. I struggle with the idea that the goal of making documentary films is to reinforce and persuade people of how I see a situation, which is always reflective of my internalized beliefs.
What if storytelling was not about seducing or frightening people into accepting an agenda, but instead about non-judgmentally bearing witness and challenging assumptions through transformational process, where it doesn’t matter if we all end up on the same page, so long as we experience an important journey together? What if film was not about creatively justifying one’s point, but about inviting people as equals to explore diverse ideas? This approach would take a lot of humility and trust, but it would also be more collaborative and democratic. I want to break out of the idea that the audience is passive to the director’s will–I want the audience to inform and co-create the film’s meaning with me. Especially when the subject matter is something to which no one has the authoritative answers. Like: what does sustainability mean?
I am interested in film’s ever-evolving capacity to embody and express our shifting collective awareness about our social and environmental relations, as encapsulated today by the catch-all word “sustainability.” If sustainability involves the generative participation of all stakeholders, how might film facilitate audiences to become involved co-creators in the film’s meaning? How might films encourage audiences to empower themselves, through encouraging awareness of film’s limitations and appreciation for its power to influence awareness, so that audiences don’t give away their power, uncritically, to any authoritative voice–even the director’s? By embodying these critical issues in not just a film’s story, but the filmmaking processes, I aim to challenge social issue films to not just tell about the problems, but to model the change you wish to see in the world.
As is evidenced with the emergence of horror films in the 1930s, cinema innovations and social movements are co-emergent. Thus, I see all of the questions I pose above as being profoundly tied up with our future as a society. At this urgent juncture of potential global ecological collapse, we desperately need to amplify our passionate, critical engagement with our world, question our sources of information, and use our creativity and collaborative capacities to begin healing, repairing, creating new systems and dismantling old ones in the most constructive ways possible. Instead of film’s main function being to distract, entertain, or manipulate us, with audiences treated like passive consumers, our global challenges today require a cinema that stimulates its audiences to further analysis, awareness of, and engagement with reality.
Through subjective, reflexive, poetic and “meta” cinema techniques, we can model the interior landscapes of deep awakenings through paradox and recursion. Stylistic influences for Sust Enable: The Metamentary include:
- Exit Through the Gift Shop – the film’s construction and presentation embody its core question
- Enter the Void – holistically mirrors subjective consciousness, even after death
- The Fountain – one story reiterated over three lifetimes, using symbolism to tie them together. Tells of the progression from attachment to form to enlightenment.
- The Unforeseen – poetically comparing human land use behaviors with biological patterns like cancer and natural cycles
- Koyaanisqatsi (Life Out of Balance) – models what it is like to experience natural environments compared with modern urban life
- Death by Design: The Life and Times of Life and Times – compares cellular processes with human processes
- Touch (TV show) – illustrates global interconnectedness
How I began designing Sust Enable: The Metamentary
One of the first things I figured out about why my original design for a “100% sustainable” lifestyle was not, in fact, sustainable, was that the “behind-the-scenes” processes for the original Sust Enable were anything but sustainable. The crew burned fossil fuels driving to shoot interviews and b-roll, we ate fast food for on-set meals, and there was a general air of discontent and disagreement among the team and on location. However, in front of the camera, I was supposed to look 100% sustainable… whereas in reality, I was also serving as a producer on this unsustainable production. Juggling these two distinct lifestyles created intense dissonance which caused greater crew dissonance, which was ultimately–yep–unsustainable.
I realized that to truly explore the meaning of sustainability on film, we had to also explore it through the filmmaking. How else would we know, as filmmakers, which points were the most important ones to include in the film, except by testing them in our own processes? With a self-similar model that is constantly striving for greater clarity and consistency (again, both on camera, and behind the camera), we are sure to make a truly profound statement about the meanings of sustainability. To be as mindful, transparent, and inclusive as possible, this is what is called for from us.
But what makes me so sure that we can attain sustainability in the filmmaking, and that such efforts will align with the sustainability themes from the research? First of all, no one gets to be the “authority” on what sustainability means–that includes this film. Despite appearances, we are not setting out to prove that our experiences with sustainability will define the one, true meaning of sustainability. We simply want to contribute meaningfully to the discourse.
On the other hand, I had an interesting experience following the collapse of my original Sust Enable project. I spent months enduring serious depression in 2008-2009 as I was trying to make sense of what had gone wrong. I began to distill different “lessons” about why my original project was perhaps not sustainable. Then I started doing academic research. Surprisingly, the same themes discussed in the academic research–concerning what defines a sustainable system–were extremely similar to the lessons I had drawn from the collapse of my project. This suggested to me that lessons of sustainability can be learned experientially, meaning any of us can understand and access the ideas contained in “sustainability.” It also implied that with thorough qualitative research studying and linking all of the disparate approaches to sustainability, a nature of sustainability might clarify itself.
So is there a nature of sustainability? Well, I don’t want to give away the film. But I will say this: we are immersed in an evolution of understanding, and one ideal “right” answer may be less important than engaging in the discourse.