Thursday, April 19, 2012

Around The World In Weighty Ways

When Godfrey Reggio's wordless documentary, Koyanisqaatsi: Life Out of Balance, was first released in 1982, much more attention was focused on Philip Glass's score and Ron Fricke's cinematography than the ecological message contained in the film. Since then, the globalization of catastrophic news, combined with cable media's need to incite and spread fear whenever possible has given man a keener perspective on how puny he is when pitted against the force of nature.
Unfortunately, man's ability to fuck things up also finds its way into the news. On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused a major environmental crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. By the time the leak was capped, an estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude oil were contaminating one of the world's largest food sources. Two years later, this report from Al Jazeera English is cause for concern.

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On March 11, 2011, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan and shocked the world. Not only was the event the most thoroughly documented disaster in history, many of the observers, survivors (and even some of the victims) filmed the destruction as it happened before their horrified eyes.

However, as the crisis surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility gained greater clarity, it was difficult to assess the impact of the radioactive pollution emanating from the damaged reactor. Samples of marine life and wreckage from the tsunami were measured for radioactivity. Some even predicted that northern Japan would become a dead zone for decades to come.

Isamu Hirabayashi's breathtaking six-minute animation short entitled 663114 puts a fascinating twist on the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake, the tsunami, and the core meltdown at the nuclear plant. With a phenomenal soundtrack composed by Osaka-based sound producer Takashi Watanabe663114 will be screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival. The film's tagline states that "a 66-year cicada has been waiting a long time and understandably has a lot on its mind as it creeps up your wall to do God knows what."

A frame from 663114 shows a cicada being threatened
by the powerful waves of an approaching tsunami

Hirabayashi (a Japanese filmmaker who directs TV commercials for his living) turned to a more traditional form of Japanese art in his quest to express his feelings about the radiation leaking from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The numbers contained in the title of his film (663114) have a dark significance:
  • The first two digits (66) stand for the 66 years that have elapsed since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • The next three digits (311) stand for the date of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
  • The final digit (4) refers to the number of nuclear reactors that were affected in the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.
As Hirabayashi's animated cicada attempts to crawl up a tree, the narrator explains that:
"Once every 66 years,
I emerge from the ground, leave offspring and die.
Before mating,
I shed my hard shell at the risk of my life.
Our ancestors have continued this cycle countless times.
The soil of this country is very fit for us to live in.
It is free of strong pesticides and there are no land mines.
The water is delicious so the sap is delicious as well.
I will climb as high as I can.
Aiming higher and higher.
It is our natural instinct.
To survive and leave offspring.
Since the moment of shedding skin is life risking.
We choose a tree that is tall, sturdy and won’t shake that much.
Our ancestors have continued this cycle countless times.
Through the various hardships."

In 663114, the dark waves of the tsunami are frightening and yet, when the cicada reemerges from the wreckage and radiation, it has undergone a severe mutation which has given it wings of rare beauty. Hirabayashi's short is an exquisite example of how art can explain nature with a depth and poetry that live footage of a disaster can never match.

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In 2002, a French documentary described a satellite spy system that put George Orwell's predictions of totalitarianism in 1984 to shame. According to the film's descriptive material:
"Echelon is a nickname for a conglomerate of five countries that have developed an information-sharing policy. The United States, Canada, England, Australia, and New Zealand have all acknowledged that they effectively spy on each other in an effort to get around laws that prevent countries from spying on their own citizens. This intelligence sharing partnership has prevented numerous terrorist attacks worldwide and has aided the U.S. in its recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. 'Echelon: The Most Secret Spy System' explores the technological aspects of the partnership, which include encryption and hi-tech satellite communication. The show explores the history of listening in on other countries' communications and explains some of the situations in which it's been controversial. A rare interview with NSA Director Michael Hayden discusses the NSA's role in combating terrorism and the importance of the Echelon partnership to that role. Former spies discuss what they heard when they were ordered to listen in on supposedly private conversations. Finally, the show concludes with a discussion of what role Echelon will play in the ever-changing war on terror."
Although much of the film's narration is in French, you can watch Echelon by clicking on this link. The 90-minute film is a perfect warm-up act to a recent article in Wired magazine entitled The NSA Is Building The Country's Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say), which details how fresh advances in cracking encryption codes are creating new frontiers in data mining.

When I read about such programs, I often wonder if the old saying "Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink!" should be upgraded to "Data, data, everywhere, and not much time to think." A curious black-and-white short that appeared with 663114 on the Shanimation program at the San Francisco International Film Festival shows how data can be used to create a powerful piece of art.

Filmmakers Ruth Jarman and Joseph Gerhardt used data collected from the CARISMA radio array as a geomagnetic storm occurred in the Earth's upper atmosphere and interpreted it as audio. The film's sound is the tweeting and rumbling caused by incoming solar wind that was captured at a frequency of 20 hertz.

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Last year, when Tiffany Shlain premiered her documentary entitled Connected: An Autobiography About Love, Death, and Technology, she described how her family had adopted a weekly "technology sabbath" in which they unplugged from all their communication devices for 24 hours.

In a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times entitled Where Have All The Neurotics Gone?Benedict Carey noted:
"Recent studies have found that, among college students, neuroticism levels have increased by as much as 20 percent. Are young people today really more anxious and troubled — more neurotic — than their parents were at the same age? Many parents undoubtedly think so (college was a long time ago), and some researchers do, too. But another way to read those numbers is not as a measure of mental makeup but of cultural change. People of all ages today, and most especially young people, are awash in self-confession, not only in the reality-show of pop culture but in the increasingly public availability of almost every waking thought, through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. If chronic Facebook or Twitter posting is not an exercise in neurosis, then nothing is."
Based on Ronald Wright's bestseller A Short History of Progress, a new documentary entitled Surviving Progress asks viewers to take a good hard look at the price we pay for all of our technological advances. Whether focusing on the crises created by deforestation and overpopulation -- or the role mercenary banks have played in saddling emerging countries with debt and concentrating wealth in the financial class -- this new film by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks is, at the very least, gorgeous to watch.

Poster art for Surviving Progress

Whether visiting a chimpanzee research lab in New Iberia, Louisiana or exploring the Amazon rainforest, Surviving Progress takes a cynical look at the damage man keeps inflicting on his environment and wonders how much longer we have before the law of diminishing returns starts to work against us.

Time spent with Chen Ming, a Chinese man who is giving guided automobile tours to China's nouveau riche (many of whom do not yet know how to drive) is contrasted with Enio Beata, a Brazilian sawmill owner who states that “The people responsible for destroying the Amazon are the big farmers, the international corporations. The biggest farmers are senators, deputies, colonels. They’re the ones destroying the Amazon forest. Them. Not us.”

As the No Impact Project's representative, Colin Beavan, explains: “Before I go around trying to change other people, maybe I should look at myself and change myself and keep my side of the street clean.”

In many ways, Surviving Progress is a logical successor to Koyanisqaatsi and 2003's The Corporation. Its perspective is provocative, its data disturbing and yet, because of how beautifully it has been filmed, viewers might find themselves tuning out the talking heads to concentrate on the documentary's lush visuals. Here's the trailer:

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