Across Distances, Common Threads: The Catalyzing Moment When I Knew I Must Make “Sust Enable: The Metamentary”

I sat in my quiet, still, squatted bedroom one morning in April 2010.  It was a clear, sunny, and sweetly cool day–the open window welcomed a fresh breeze.  Finally feeling a little bit safe after months of reflection and writing, still raw from the psychic turbulence of having many of my assumptions about sustainability confronted, I picked up a printout of the very first article I had found using a Google Scholar search on the term “sustainability,” with the gentle notion that I was finally ready to start my research into what other people working on “sustainability” issues had to say about it.  This article was the top-listed one from the search I had conducted a day prior.  The article was “A Complexity Approach to Sustainability,” by A. Espinosa, R. Harnden, and J. Walker, published in the European Journal of Operational Research in 2008.  To know what others were writing and thinking about sustainability would help me develop my feature documentary film idea, I thought.  What happened next was a great shock.

It seemed that every academic argument made in this article aligned perfectly with the substantial revelations I made since the Sust Enable episode series went awry in 2008.  My most significant felt lessons from the collapsed Sust Enable project were being reinforced and affirmed on the level of this random, popular peer-reviewed publication about cybernetics.

At the line “this paper argues the need to wield analytical tools that themselves embody the principles of systemic, ecological thinking,” I gasped and uttered “oh my god!” to myself under my breath, as I remembered how the 2008 Sust Enable series failed to effectively achieve “100% sustainability” in part because the negative, critical, stressful production environment produced low-quality footage and an incomplete story.  I recalled my resulting commitment to produce a systemically-sustainable film the next time around.

At the article’s explanation about how organisms are “braided” or “coupled” to their particular environment, and that, given this, no objectivity is possible, but the most accurate judgments would be derived from considering the organism within the context of its environment, I couldn’t help but see the connection to my vision–that the new film incorporate ongoing critiques of the film’s own processes into the construction of the film’s story–as being the same core idea as braiding.  My breathing had unconsciously sped up; I stood up and began pacing around the room.  The authors were so far from me in their orientation, education, and research methods, yet their words struck so close to my experiences… how was this possible?

By the end of the article, with its comments on “wide and democratic participation,” “stakeholder involvement,” “complexity management” and “breakthrough process,” my tears were flowing.  I saw how my experiences since Sust Enable 2008, and my ideas for a film inspired from the flaws of my first attempt, might indeed be a very important story to tell.  Other people in very different fields and using different methods are discovering the same things I am about the meaning of sustainability… but I might be uniquely positioned to turn these lessons into a creative documentary film.  Reading through the Espinosa article again now, I still get chills.  It’s hard to express how substantial that day was for me in setting me on the journey toward Sust Enable: The Metamentary.

Ever since, I cannot shake the feeling that there may be some kind of universal nature of sustainability, as natural as the existence of water or of life.  Our current social agitation around issues of sustainability may be indicative that we are on the verge of (re)discovering a kind of “natural law”, which could guide us about how we are to live, and live well, as inhabitants of Earth.

And I believe that each and every human can know what sustainability means, and looks like, and feels like.  In fact, staking an independent claim to this word, and trusting only your own experiences and body to guide you, is key to developing a unique, individual sensitization to sustainability issues that will only further enrich our dialogs.

Some of us have more opportunities to explore sustainability–like people of native cultures, who are much more concerned with their lifestyle’s local and direct “sustainability” (the braiding of lifestyle to environment) than a civilized person whose Western-derived mega-culture relies on technology that commodifies everything, divorces goods from sources, attacks us with messages constantly reinforcing our inadequacy, frustrates meaningful community, and externalizes industrial costs across the planet.  Yet if scientists in an academic critical context could discover the same themes of sustainability that I too had identified through certain dramatic personal experiences during Sust Enable 2008 (and beyond), what does this say about the significance of sharing our experiences and visions for sustainability with one another?  What does this say about our interconnectedness, our collective consciousness?  What does this say about our gift for insight, and our subsequent obligation to act wisely?  What does this say of the potential for us to join forces to solve complex, interrelated problems?

One of the premises of the current, updated Sust Enable project is self-determination and reflexivity: we don’t have to rely on economic or governmental authorities to figure out what sustainability means on our behalf–we can uncover important insight into sustainable living just by tapping into our own unique and diverse realities.  Sust Enable: The Metamentary compares diverse interviewee commentary about the meaning of sustainability with footage of a simple life transforming over time, in an attempt to find supporting evidence for common sustainability principles everywhere–even in mundane human experiences.  To prove that this insight is ours to take–that we will be the generation to define sustainability, and that we will, in all our wisdom and freedom, get to clarify and renew humanity’s most sacred and most fulfilling work on this planet.

Do you think sustainability probably has an intrinsic nature, universal to all living things?  Why or why not?  If so, do you think we could ever articulate a universally applicable definition of sustainability?

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The Next Evolution in Advanced Film Styles

It is worth insisting that the strategies and styles deployed in documentary, like those of narrative film, change; they have a history. And they have changed for much the same reasons: the dominant modes of expository discourse change; the arena of ideological contestation shifts. The comfortably accepted realism of one generation seems like artifice to the next. New strategies must constantly be fabricated to re-present “things as they are” and still others to contest this very representation. –Bill Nichols, “The Voice of Documentary”

MC Escher - Hand with Reflecting Sphere

MC Escher – Hand with Reflecting Spher

Since reading Lord of the Flies in ninth grade I have been obsessed with the idea of allegory–of encoding one meaning within another, like Russian nesting dolls.  Analogy, allegory, simile, metaphor… to learn is to build from analogy.  The brain creates narratives to describe direct experiences through analogy; for example:

Pain : Your Body :: Whatever Behavior I am Doing : You (Your Survival).

So what if you simply increase the complexity of analogies to the point where you have to reference the system itself that is thinking in order to contextualize a point?  An observer becomes aware of his own observing activity when the complexity of his collective brain connections reaches a critical mass.  At this point, moviegoers are very familiar with cinema language and narrative conventions.  We are well aware of what’s going to “come next” in a formulaic film.  So what will be the next for filmmaking?  How do we continue making films that thrill, inspire, and stimulate whole populations?

After over 100 years of exposure to cinema, audiences are primed for the next level of movie experiences.  Some folks in Hollywood have interpreted this to mean IMAX, 3-D, CGI, and extra-long, convoluted story lines.  There’s even talk of building movie theaters whose seats jolt around based on action on the screen, and Smell-o-vision.  Yet as all these technological bells and whistles are tacked on to your moviegoing experience, stories become more and more impoverished–Hollywood now produces mainly stories based on only on franchises: sequels, prequels, and remakes.  As the costs to produce these high-tech movies skyrocket into the hundreds of millions of dollars, Hollywood becomes more hesitant to produce original content, thus stifling fresh, perhaps simpler ideas… meanwhile, those increases in movie spending is passed off to the consumer, in form of crazy high ticket prices.  Is this really what innovation looks like?

I see cinematic innovation a little differently. I believe a film’s story is enhanced when the story effectively refers to the assumptions of its audience–when the audience’s expectations become a factor in the story’s development.  When a film draws attention to its frame, its medium, it by extension draws attention to our expectations of that that medium.  This further draws on our historical exposure to and immersion in the evolution of film language, which further draws into light our social and cultural constructions of meaning — our “reality” — that is embedded in each one of us.  Documentaries and avant garde narrative films from the likes of Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, and Charlie Kaufman do much to challenge our projections of a normal, predictable world, by challenging our expectations for a film and a meaningful film narrative.  You can refer to the film, and yet still the film can morph from that process.  This is, essentially, how creating new film products over time “locks in” certain style and narrative standards (like the close-up and parallel cutting, for example), while simultaneously opening up new possibilities for innovation in the films that follow.  In this way, film evolves.

Film is a highly technical and petroleum-based medium, but at its roots it is not a new medium.  At its roots, film is a sophisticated form of performance and storytelling, which are archaic (no negative connotation) methods of communication that are foundational to the way we relate to the world.  The function of sharing stories is to encode social values — that’s why, even in elaborate fantasies, the underlying structure of the story will often involve archetypes like hero, villain, mentor, and so forth.

Some have argued that even the quality of the movie theater environment — in a dark room with other rapt bodies, gazing at a flickering screen — harkens to our biological history of gathering around campfires to share crucial survival information through storytelling.  All the Hollywood film industry is doing (with its billion-dollar budgets, fanatic celebrity culture, and massive exploitation of humans and environment) is telling the same damn Hero’s Journey story in fancy dressing.  Though I’m not one to deny that film is a profoundly beautiful and sophisticated artform, it is also just a means for delivering simple stories, dressed way, way up.  Even as the stylization and technical delivery of these films seems limitless in expansion, somehow, the underlying stories seem ever more shallow.

When a society’s values are shifting as they are right now, we storytellers are pressured to tell meaningful stories.  We need new kinds of film, new stories encoding our new meanings.  I draw my inspiration from the reflexive (self-referencing) narrative and documentary films which in the last ten years have expanded into new dimensions of self-reference, subjective narratives, and non-chronological construction of narratives.  Reflexivity in the film form appeals to me intuitively because this artistic movement of drawing additional meaning into the story from the film’s own construction seems to me to mirror our society’s growing awareness of how our industrial, economic and social actions have widespread, dispersed ecological affects that can end up negatively impacting us in complex ways, even on a global scale.  Reflecting on our big and small life choices, we may discover startling consequences that are tied back to our own little narrative in a way that reshapes us.

My film Sust Enable: The Metamentary is firmly aligned with this movement in filmmaking.  Lots of film theory research and creative development over the past three years has afforded me a strong yet flexible film “container” that will as fully as possible represent its core question “What does sustainability mean?”on all levels of the film’s creation.  The design for Sust Enable: The Metamentary is well-researched and thoughtfully crafted… but what will go in the container?  What defines our current debates about sustainability?
How might this container have to flex beyond known bounds, in order to effectively contain such world-changing questions?  How might film not only be more effectively reflexive, but more inclusive, more participatory, centered on audience-empowerment instead of audience-numbing?
At The Sust Enable Project, we are committed to seeing these questions through; to asking more of the film medium and more of the filmmaking industry.  We want to facilitate people defining their own stories, not to have the same old stories told for them.  This intention is embedded in our productive design, too–we are looking for partners in this ambitious task.  Though we are decidedly not casting for heros or villains, we are currently looking for talented, compassionate, forward-thinking filmmakers and mediamakers to join us, in dynamically modeling a successful, sustainable film and filmmaking protocol on the diverse sustainable successes emerging on our amazing planet.  The socio-economic trend for “infinite growth” will not bear out in the long run, nor can it bear out in our film industry and cinematic technologies either–it becomes unworkably inaccessible, for both filmmakers and film consumers.  Since it cannot grow forever, now is the time to apply our creativity to make film a little more reflexive, a little more provocative, a little more rooted… a little more real.
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Sust Enable as a platform for openly “workshopping” sustainability

Sust Enable has adopted many forms throughout its development from a seed film idea two years ago, derived out of filmmaker/author Caroline Savery’s remarkable struggles with the Sust Enable episode series in 2008.

Caroline wanted to share how her life had been radically altered–for the better–through practically testing her naive, culturally-influenced attitudes about what sustainability means in a three-month “sustainable living” experiment.  With a ten-year background in filmmaking, she wanted to tell this story through the film medium–namely, with a documentary that would illustrate her trials, tribulations, and her maturing philosophy that this one little word, “sustainability,” could encode a massive shift in culture, consciousness and conduct.  And from the tough-earned insights she learned about sustainability, it was important to her to approach the production of the documentary film in an authentically sustainable, holistic way.

This seed developed into an ambitious vision.  What if the entire film production process was built upon an adapting, evolving list of sustainability principles?  The world is currently working out definitions of sustainability in a variety of settings, fields, and lives–are there any emergent, common themes to this movement that the film could use as guidelines and models?  What if the film’s entire process embodied these values–would the final product not only be about what sustainability means, but actually look, feel, and be a more sustainable film?  How would this effort contribute to global sustainability? Continue reading

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