Film-maker, video director, designer and friend Matt Anderson has been working on the release of a discursive documentary about the longer-run origins of our present set of interlinked crises, from the ecological and environmental to the technological, societal and economic. Earlier this summer he showed me a rough-cut of the film and we later sat down to do a written interview. The extended trailer for the film is showcased above and some photographs from the making of the documentary below, followed by the interview itself. Much more information on the documentary can be found on its website here.
So starting with the easy stuff, what’s your documentary about and why did you set about making it?
The film is an exploration through the various ecological and psychological crises humans currently face. I wanted to travel around with a camera and find out where this crisis began and how its presently impacting our society, and to discover the ingenious ways in which humans are adapting.
What led you to the title?
The title clicked when I was thinking about the vulnerability of our modern society. We are evolving into a very singular way of living on an ever-changing planet. This culture seems to operate as if independent of (or superior to) the systems that regulate all life on this planet. With a changing climate, and so many geological/ecological shifts taking place I thought of the connection between the ‘fall’ of empire, and the transition from summer to autumn. I thought: “we had better be prepared”. What I didn’t expect was for the title to continually fit so many meaningful and ancient metaphors.
Yours is the type of film that relies heavily on the interrelations between observations made by different interviewees. How did you set about selecting your subjects, and how did you go about interviewing them?
Well, we have a lot of people in the film. There’s about 25 interviews, and the people range quite a bit – from professors to natural builders, urban activists to psychedelic scientists. My aim was to try and represent as many view points as possible that added a new perspective to our understanding of some aspect of the struggle for life and freedom.
With this diverse range of people, the reasons why we picked them varied. Many times I would come across a book or article that opened another door in my head and we’d seek the author out. But then the cosmos would step in and we’d end up staying with an amazing couple living through the gulf disaster, or sleeping in an unfinished shed on Hopi land.
When it came time to do the interview, I would have a ‘guide sheet’ although mainly I just asked the subject what I wanted to know, making sure to cover the aspects of their work that I felt related to the larger narrative. Most of the time I was learning as I went. I felt very spoiled to be able to ask so many people such a range of questions, and to receive such unique and thoughtful answers.
There was also a deep interrelation between the locations we sought to visit and the brilliant, kind people nestled all over this country. We seemed to go from haven to wasteland a lot, with the darkest side of humanity sharing the landscape with a vibrant, emerging or resilient culture.
The overall style of the film is very elliptical, the narrative trajectory is driven as much by poetic montages or long takes as by excerpts from interviews or statements by interviewees. What is absent, and what one might typically expect in such a documentary, is a narrator. Why? What informed the way you put the film together stylistically or pragmatically?
I have been asked many times why I’m not in the film. People insist that there’s a void, or something peculiar about no narration, or lack of a ‘crew’. I chose to do it this way so that the many people who have spent their lives researching complex problems and developing solutions could speak for themselves. It’s the chorus that we hear which I feel is most important. I hope that because I was asking everyday questions that other people might have, that in the end the audience feels itself to be behind the camera with us witnessing the world speak to them through images and words of direct experience.
Photography plays a larger than usual role in the narrative rubric of your documentary. In fact, in a way that makes me think of Koyaanisqatsi for example, at times images simply speak independent of any subject or specific theme. As this site focuses heavily on photography could you talk a little about how it influenced your film, informed location scouting, was set up as a principal actor in the film etc..?
This film relies very heavily on the visual language we developed throughout the filming process. We decided early on that we should use the Red camera, since it can shoot 2K images at up to 120 frames per second. This allowed us to shoot nearly every place we visited in stunning slow motion. The central concept of the change of seasons and the pace of our unfolding crisis seemed to fit this approach of seeing the world at a creeping yet constant pace. The beauty of deciding on a very deliberate and focused visual language was that our film has a unified aesthetic, despite the wide variety of locations we shot at.
In choosing locations, I was very particular that the place had an eye-catching or metaphoric significance. Many of the destinations were researched ahead of time, but regardless of our intention, the unplanned component of what you find when you get there is usually the best. I had decided I wanted to film the tent cities in Fresno CA. When we got there, it was beyond what I had imagined. 1 mile from these tent cities were yards full of old gas station and roadside signs with multi-acre junkyards full of stripped-down cars. I had in mind a few particular images to capture, but what we found provided us with a much more interesting and diverse set of imagery which we couldn’t have expected.
We embarked on four trips around various parts of the US for this film. Between interviews and planned locations there was an immense amount of spontaneous shooting. This was the most rewarding aspect because it couldn’t have been pre-imagined. As filming went on, I became much less concerned with detailed research because I grew a confidence that the landscape would provide the images needed to tell our story. All we had to do was set out the door with the right destinations and intent, and we would collide with locations which suited our needs.
I’m sure that at various points you were likely discouraged from making a documentary that took aim at the precarious state our civilisation, at the systemic ecological and environmental risks created by the way we live (for a number of reasons). Why did you proceed, and how do you feel that things have moved on from when you started developing the idea to the stage you’re at now?
It’s interesting, because I didn’t set out to make a political or controversial film. Or at least, I had no fixed intention to take on the whole of such a complex and overwhelming subject. I just began asking some questions that would lead me a little further towards understanding what is happening, which would lead me to some deeper questions and so on.
Before filming, I had done a fair amount of research and reading about global catastrophes, the unsustainable nature of our society, globalization, and those sorts of things. I knew I wanted to investigate and interview people about how this came to be, and I was prepared to go wherever it led me.
At some point during the first trip of filming I realized that I was on a path which didn’t have an end, yet I kept learning things which coaxed me further along. Of course there are discouraging times where you run out of money, or logistical problems interfere with your plans. But for me this has always been part of my process of seeking answers to hard questions. It’s like being on the side of a mountain which you decided to climb. You can’t just hop to a different peak.
As for the precarious state of our civilization, I’ve found that since beginning this process the course of events around the world has unfortunately met my worst expectations. What I find interesting is that the more I’ve confronted and analyzed this crisis, the less pessimistic I have become toward what lays ahead.
Although social and ecological crises are multiplying at a worrisome pace, through this project I’ve gained amazing insight which has grounded me. I’ve found a way of understanding and accepting things out of my control, and learning first-hand from others the important things which I and everyone else has within their power to employ.
I am now inextricably linked to the film. In this project I’ve found my purpose and helped to orient myself in the right direction as this transitional wave hits our planet. I hope the film encourages others to do the same!
Since we know each other, it seems sensible to get you to talk a little about your influences philosophically, culturally and of course in cinema in general, and documentary film-making in particular. How, if at all, have these various influences fed into your work on Fall/Winter?
I grew up obsessed with films. My Grandfather used to pick me up after elementary school and we’d head straight to the video store. Our favorite film to watch was definitely ‘The Blues Brothers’ and we’d parrot the lines from the film, cracking up until my mom or dad picked me up. Ironically, he also had a deep interest in archaeology. I became obsessed with Native myths and history, so we’d read books about the various clans, their fights against settlers and visit the Museum of Anthropology frequently. My Grampa would comment about how the things in the books were inaccurate, or based on theories which he didn’t agree with. It was this questioning of the ‘official story’ (and having the right to pencil in your own) which I think set some deep foundation blocks for me.
I continued to be fascinated with films. In high school, I would go to the local video store that had a 5 movies for $5 deal about three times a week, and my best friend would trade bootleg VHS tapes for rarities like ‘Holy Mountain’ or the 5-hour work-print version of ‘Apocalypse Now’. I also read many film books, everything from V.I. Pudovkin’s ‘Film Technique and Film Acting’ to Marshall McLuhan’s ‘Understanding Media’. The peak of this cinema-obsession was when I bought a pass to the Vancouver Film Festival and watched 72 films in 3 weeks.
I’m glad that I went through this intensive period of vacuuming up films. It certainly informs me in all the work I do now. The funny thing is now that I’m making a film, I have very low stamina for watching movies. At the end of the day I like to watch nature documentaries or the un-demanding hum of reality TV.
What kind of a crew did you put together, and how did you go about finding people to work with you on the project? How did you go about actually putting the pieces together as a crew to end up with enough material for the documentary?
I think it’s interesting that the crew for this film came about in such an unforced and organic way. My close friend David Black and I began travelling together and collaborating on a lot of music videos. After a couple trips to California, we ended up shooting a video for our friend Michael Gerner’s band ‘D.A.’. We trekked into death valley, the Salton Sea and the redwoods to shoot an unscripted psychedelic science fiction odyssey. We all had the time of our lives experimenting in these landscapes and imagining a free-form visual narrative.
Through this, we began defining and refining a method of working together in different roles but acting as a singular organism. When I had finished researching and planning our trip, we picked up where we left off – on another adventure.
It was interesting to see how that dynamic changed on the second leg of filming. David was busy with another project at the time, so my good friend Paul Park (another talented photographer and cinematographer) came instead. Paul had been taking some amazing photos of protesters around Washington DC and filming a documentary about devastated communities in Gaza. We visited Detroit and the Gulf Oil spill, so his angle of experience worked fantastically in these locations. It was exciting that Paul’s involvement added something new to the film, while maintaining the same spirit and tone which we had previously developed. I have learned that a film truly is a sum of all parts, and I’ll forever feel blessed that I shared this adventure with my talented friends.
What were some of the difficulties that you came across in shooting – ranging from finding subjects and arranging interviews to pragmatic difficulties with actually shooting and so forth? Every production has its Terry Gilliam nightmares, so what were yours?
Well, there’s the usual pragmatic nightmares of scheduling, gear, budget and what have you. But thanks to my co-producer Natalia Leite, we’ve had pretty smooth sailing in terms of organization and timing. However, we’ve had many run-ins with trickster forces, which taught us great lessons and challenged us immensely:
While shooting footage of an abandoned glass pyramid in Memphis we were detained and questioned for 5 hours by Homeland Security. We weren’t trespassing, but Michael was suspected of being a terrorist because he has a long beard. It was July and we were waiting in the hot sun while three FBI agents tore through our van and reviewed our footage. After watching a number of clips, one of them commented that the footage should have “a bit more contrast” and they let us go.
In Detroit, we had set up an interview with the legendary author and activist Grace Lee Boggs. She is 95 years old, and still works every day to make her community better. To have an interview with someone like that is an honour. We sat down and she began asking me about the film and what I was hoping to get from her. I spoke a lot to make up for the fact that I was muddled and lost. She politely stopped me and stated “You haven’t done your homework. Take these books, and come back tomorrow. Then we may try again.” Dumbfounded, I obliged and then we spent the day driving around filming Detroit and reading passages from her work to each other. Through exploring Detroit while hearing her words, I was able to re-approach Grace’s interview with a much better understanding. I’m very thankful I didn’t get a free pass from Grace. Her challenge made our experience and the interview much, much better.
While visiting Hopi Nation in Arizona for a third time, every angle of approach to filming seemed to lead us in circles. We slept in a strangers unfinished shack with $100,000 worth of gear and no clue if we would ever get what we hoped for. Feeling frustrated and lost, we set out at night and I hit a dog on the highway with our rental van. The dog skidded out into the darkness, running away before we could see if he was hurt. I crumbled in shock, and David took over driving. The next day we went to Monument Valley and things took a full turn around, launching us into a fun and positive voyage for the rest of the trip. When I got back home and watched the footage, we had exactly what we needed…
How do you strike a balance between wanting to be current and relevant, and addressing issues in a less event-driven longer-view context? What informs that choice?
This is something I battle with quite a bit. This type of film comes with many kinds of expectations and ‘standards’. There are literally countless political, ecological, collapse, peak-oil documentaries that have come out in recent years. This is fantastic, and for films to actually affect culture and engender a discourse is absolutely crucial. But also, there is kind of a routine or pattern which many of these films follow. This is an important point, because the effect of homogeneity breeds disinterest.
I think it’s my job to present new, dynamic ways of seeing and investigating this crisis. This means everything from the process, the content, the aesthetic – everything – should be considered in how we can experiment and create something that plumbs new depths, shows alternative angles, and raises questions that go to the core of our cultural precepts.
I hope that I can find a way to make this film appealing to general audiences, and yet not abridge or dilute the history lesson needed to explain the deepest causes of our crises. This is not an ecological, or a ‘save-the-blank’ documentary. We must look outside of the narrow parameters that our culture presents us with. I feel that that is the most important part of dealing with this crisis, scouring our psyche for the switches which enable us to subscribe to ideas of ‘sustainable growth’, ‘genetic modification’ or ‘peace through superior force’. Our task is to evolve beyond the old ego-constructs, and I feel films are a powerful tool in this endeavour if they dig deep enough.
Have you finished principal photography, or are there other areas geographic or thematic that you still plan on exploring?
We’ve finished filming, but this subject doesn’t let me ever feel like we got enough. If I wasn’t so overwhelmingly excited about the immense amount of footage already shot, I would find an excuse to keep going. There are so many more people I would love to interview, and so many more places to visit.
Originally, this project had a global scope. We had plans to go and explore the underwater ruins off Yonaguni in Japan and the unexplainably large foundation stones at Baalbek, Lebanon. We also hoped to go to the mountains of e-waste in Ghana, the ecological destruction in the Amazon and hidden, ancient paintings in the Australian outback.
It soon became apparent that I was overzealous with my plans, and I made the choice to focus on America for logistical reasons. What I didn’t expect was to find parallels to these exotic locations in our US adventures. I ended up documenting similar crises/ruins without having to leave the borders. Also, before we began shooting, I didn’t realize how much of this film would come to be about this culture. I feel that in being forced to simplify my scope, I gained more than I could’ve expected.
Quite separately from the film, where personally do you feel we are at the moment – both in the States, where you are, and globally – on these issues?
Like many others, I asked myself again and again ‘Why don’t people change?’ Pessimistically, I saw it as similar to a chemical dependency – like heroin. I felt as though everyone, including myself, were addicted to a way of life from which it was inevitable we would overdose or deteriorate. What I think helped me from this analysis is that the source of our problem is psychological. We have pathologised the problems stemming from our culture, and in the process unleashed terrible atrocities using techniques from a brutal, archaic past.
I met so many inspiring people who helped show me that you can’t only be against. You have to be for something. We have to be for consuming less, for human rights, for life. And, people protect what they love. What we as a whole presently love is consuming, because we are traditionally (and currently) a culture of plunderers.
The information and experience of making this film has led me outside of my own culture to observe the greater scope of our collective activities and their trajectory. From this perspective I came to understand how molded we are by that culture, our history, our mythology, persuasion, intimidation, unconscious forces and the tracks laid out by our ancestors.
I feel where this crisis begins and ends is within each of us. The radical transition we are undergoing is challenging, but ultimately it is necessary to both correct the mistakes we are making, and evolve consciousness in new, unimaginable ways. We are all protagonists in the story of life, and all responsible for that success or failure.
The images of doomsday are given to us by our own culture. The images of despair, ruin, alienation and so on. These are images of a dying culture. If we step away from the screens, we find a wonderful, hospitable world with a renewed awe for the cosmos.
So, how that relates to where I feel we are at the moment? I think we’re in the right place at the right time! When we interviewed John Jeavons, he said “The future’s exciting. Everyone gets to be a pioneer!”