Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sundance 2009: Caught in the Activism

[Film Fest] Plenty of Sundance documentaries over the years have been intended to motivate viewers to some kind of action through awareness. But there has been a special sub-section of that category: the documentaries about people engaged in some kind of high-concept project to make a point. Think Super Size Me, and you’ll be get a sense for what I'm talking about.

Or in the case of this year's No Impact Man, think Super Downsize Me. Writer Colin Beavan, as part of a project for his latest book, decides to spend one year attempting walk his progressive talk by having zero environmental impact, and brings his wife Michelle and 2-year-old daughter Isabella along for the ride. And by “zero impact,” he means zero: no electricity, no fuel-powered vehicles, no food that isn’t local and seasonal, no new purchases, no trash generated, not even toilet paper.

There’s certainly some fascinating conflict in Laura Gabbert and Justin Schien’s observation of the family’s year, both external (the blogosphere haters accusing Colin of grandstanding) and internal (hard-core urbanite Michelle’s struggle dealing with coffee withdrawals and attempting to cook an actual meal for the first time). But as the experiment unfolds, it becomes less about what they’re depriving themselves of than what they’re gaining in the process: a greater sense of connection with one another as a family, with their community, and with the rest of the world around them. If it’s just a stunt, it’s a stunt that brings a family closer together, and it's as emotionally affecting as it is practically inspiring.

The Yes Men – Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano – also attempt to live their principles through stunts, as they first showed in their self-titled 2003 film that played at that year’s Sundance. In their follow-up The Yes Men Fix the World, they’re once again out to expose the follies of corporate America by passing themselves in various elaborately-staged hoaxes as representatives from major corporations. And once again, they show primarily how hard it is to say anything so absurd that someone in the corporate world wouldn’t consider it a real good idea. The film record of their latest exploits – pretending to have made candles from human tallow; announcing that Dow Chemicals is compensating Indian victims of the 1984 Bhopal chemical disaster – is certainly self-congratulatory, and more than a bit disjointed. It’s fascinating mostly to watch real corporate spokespersons attempt to portray the Yes Men as being cruel to those who to whom they’re giving “false hope.” But it’s still bracing to watch movies about people who live their lives as though there still is hope. (Scott Renshaw)

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