Mike Freedman on his new film Critical Mass
Unsung Films watched Mike Freedman’s Critical Mass this year when it screened at the Biografilm Festival in Bologna, Italy. On approaching the filmmaker with a short review of his documentary, we ended up with a great deal more: a 3000-word interview taking readers deep into the story of how Freedman’s film came together, how it affected him – both personally and professionally — and what we should expect in the years to come.
Here’s what happened…
Critical Mass is an immensely impacting documentary. Where did the fuel to make it happen come from? Had it been brewing for a long time? Did you just get out of bed one day and pick up a camera?
First of all, thank you for the compliment; I’m gratified by your response to the film.
The fuel to make it happen, I suppose, can be portioned into three categories – intellectual, emotional and circumstantial.
The intellectual fuel is a confluence of factors, really – I was lucky enough to be raised in a family which kept books and encouraged debate and rational inquiry. That, coupled with the added luck of receiving a decent education, gave me the foundation I needed to throw myself into the researching of the film, to follow lines of inquiry, figure out who I should talk to and what I should ask them, how to approach such a big topic in what I hope is an accessible way.
On the emotional front, I have had, for a long time, the conviction that underlying the bulk of global social and environmental issues is the common denominator of human population growth. As a filmmaker, I watch a lot of films and of course a lot of documentaries, in particular those on environmental or social issues. I noticed that I was seeing a number of environmental documentaries that were very powerful and well-researched, but which dealt almost exclusively with the consequences of certain trends rather than the causes. When one says, for example, that there is a terrible depletion rate of global fisheries and that this is caused by a huge spike in consumption over the past forty years, to the extent that we may have extinguished most species of large fish within the next fifty years, it follows logically that this spike in consumption is inextricably linked to a matching spike in human numbers. I decided that I wanted to make a film about human population growth and consumption, within the social as well as environmental context, in order to make this connection obvious to an audience and in the hope that, rather than being extreme in one form or another, we can start to centralise the issue of population in the discussion of environmental and social pressures.
Circumstantially, a friend of mine introduced me several years ago to the work of Desmond Morris. I was immersing myself in anthropology (a life-long fascination of mine) and environmental writing at the time, and the work of Desmond Morris, E.F. Schumacher and Eugene Marais gave me the intellectual framework and technical language with which to explore and clarify this huge landscape. At around this time, I heard about the experiments of John B. Calhoun and suddenly I had the story which would provide the metaphor and dramatic arc necessary for the film to have an emotional resonance rather than merely being some kind of warning dirge about people as some sort of plague, destroying the planet. It wasn’t my intention to portray humans as if we are in some way undesirable or inherently dangerous, but rather to investigate the way in which social and environmental circumstances create, in an emergent manner, the conditions in which we find ourselves today. I was lucky enough to have, from my previous work in the industry, friends who could help me make the film to a professional standard. During my research, I was told about a forum in Italy being held by the Global Footprint Network, and they were very accommodating in providing us with access to the amazing range of experts that were there. After a week in Italy, we had seventeen interviews in the can and on the flight home I realised “I’m making a film here!”.
How long did the entire project take to complete? And how many people were involved?
We shot the initial round of interviews in June 2010, at which point I had been researching and making my notes for a couple of months. We completed the film in June 2012, which is pretty bang on two years, although due to a lack of funds, probably about six to eight months of that could have been skipped if I’d been able to pay people to take time off from their day jobs or to get an assistant in to do certain things instead of doing them myself.
About fifteen people were directly involved in the production, in the sense that they had credited, technical roles on the film. Then there are of course the sixty or so people we interviewed, about twenty of which ended up in the final film. Then there are the assistants, administrators and press officers who made all of those interviews possible, the close friends and family who collaborated with me or otherwise helped out at various points in the process, the teachers who gave me the tools necessary to be capable of a task like this, the natural flow of events which has, over the course of my life, filled me with the experiences and perspectives that gave me the personality which underpins the film. Now there are the kind people who are helping me to find a way to get the film out and available to the viewing public, who are of course the ultimate and largest group of contributors, because in the end it is all for them.
Was the making of the film an educational experience for you? Through speaking to the people featured in your documentary, do you feel much more informed on the issue?
Absolutely. I feel like I’ve gone to university, in many ways. The education I received at the hands of the people I interviewed is invaluable – I got a chance to spend around two or three hours apiece with some of the brightest and most compassionate people in the world. That intensity of contact and variety of knowledge was, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, like being a turtle my whole life with the entire world only a circle of two feet around me and then suddenly being picked up by an eagle and seeing my horizons expand incalculably. From a creative and technical standpoint, as a filmmaker, needing to manage, marshall and co-ordinate so many moving parts while maintaining focus on the end goal was an exponential learning curve. It’s important to be clear, however, that this doesn’t put me in some hubristic position of being convinced about how much I know – if anything, consistently meeting and being challenged by people far smarter than I am has forced me to reassess and occasionally discard previously held beliefs and embrace how little I know and how much more there is to learn. This is exactly the same with the filmmaking process – now that I’ve done this and come this far, I see how much more there is to explore and discover. Like climbing a mountain, where every peak you reach reveals a far higher one, wreathed in clouds and daring you to go on.
One of my all-time favourite films is Koyaanisqatsi – I saw part of it in a poetry class when I was thirteen and was smitten. If I had never been introduced to that film, it’s very doubtful that I would have made this film the way that I did. Godfrey Reggio is definitely someone I admire. Peter Watkins is another director I am a tremendous fan of – The War Game was one of the most powerful films I’ve seen and, if I’m not wrong, one of the first mockumentaries. In fact, when I began the editing process of Critical Mass, I tracked down Michael Bradsell who edited The War Game (in 1960!) and he came in for a couple of sessions to take a look at the rushes and talk about structure. In the end, his health precluded him from working on the film full-time, but he was very helpful and a truly wonderful man. Desmond Morris inspired this film as well and he did work for a time as a documentary filmmaker, although it was his writing which had the impact on this film rather than his television work. Adam Curtis at the BBC is a fantastic documentarian and he has a knack for drawing together disparate disciplines and story strands to provide a comprehensive overview of a topic, which I suppose is a similar tactic to what we do in the film – I definitely admire him, but he never responds to my fanboy emails! Another inspiration, although not directly on the making of Critical Mass, has been meeting other filmmakers my age who are also doing tremendous work – it makes me feel almost like a member of a graduating class in a way, going back to that sense of having been to university. Guys like Nick Brandestini (Darwin) and Jesse Vile (Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet) who I can enjoy a drink with and, when they ask me what I thought of their films, I don’t have to lie because they’re excellent!
We have a lot of readers asking about possible ways to view the entire documentary. Is it going to appear in cinemas? Will it be available online? Or was it a festival-specific project?
We’re currently meeting with sales agents and distributors and the hope is that we will be able to secure a modest theatrical run for the film followed by the usual DVD and VOD outlets. Personally, I’d love to support the release of the film with a Q&A tour, particularly universities and high schools. We recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise some finishing funds to clear the archive footage so that we have all the rights secured for commercial release and have the flexibility we need to make sure the film comes out as widely as possible. We have some great rewards on offer and I’d be grateful to your readers for any donations they can afford. They can go to Critical Mass page at indiegogo or donate via PayPal on our website.
How extensive is your experience in filmmaking? This is an incredibly well-crafted film, how is it possible that Critical Mass is your debut?
The short answers are “not very”, “thank you” and “I don’t know!”. My father writes and directs theatre, and I grew up doing sound, lights and stage management for him, which gave me an idea of story-telling, blocking, the interplay of music and light within a story and of course, how to work with actors. I started working in the film industry I suppose from around the time I was eighteen, doing odd jobs, being an extra, making coffee and tea on set, scouting locations. Then I made a couple of short films, music videos, standard learning curve stuff. In no way whatsoever was I prepared for how intense and demanding the process of making my first feature would be. I kind of walked into it thinking “okay, today I’ll do this” and that one-day-at-a-time approach helped me stay on track. Don’t obsess, just get ‘er done! One thing I would say is that I’ve been utterly blessed with incredibly talented friends and colleagues who have put their own mark on the film – I’m a collaborative type who loves bouncing ideas off of other people and working with rather than dictating to them. I guess that’s really the key – find people who are smarter, more experienced and skilled than you, listen to them and trust their judgement as well as your own.
Is this the beginning of a cinema-based career for you? Or did the film’s motivation come from a desire to say something about a specific issue?
I certainly hope so! I got into filmmaking because I want to make theatrical features, that’s been my dream since I was twelve. The motivation to make this film absolutely came from a desire to portray and discuss a specific issue, and I hope that people see the theatrical potential in it that I do. I don’t think there’s a mutual exclusivity between a love of cinema, reaching an audience and having an issue to share. In the end, at the risk of sounding dangerously cliché, it’s all story-telling. We, as a species, are fascinated by one another – that’s why we go to the movies, to see people acting, feeling, living, experiencing. The story we tell in Critical Mass is about all the people, so I don’t see that as conflicting with broader audience engagement just because there’s a serious issue at the root of it. The film that made me want to be a filmmaker, Inherit the Wind, has a serious issue at the root of it, but it is also a fantastic story, brilliant technically and artistically, packed with excellent performances. I suppose the best films (and I’m not claiming this mantle for our film, just making a point) are those which speak to the mind, the emotions and the soul in a single holistic master stroke, combining those three occasionally battling or over-emphasised aspects of ourselves to bring us a complete experience.
What comes next? Something along the same lines, or something entirely different?
I have a list of all the films I want to make, be they documentaries or features. I recently calculated that if it took me two years to do each of them, I’ll be busy until I’m sixty. As for which one of those, or perhaps something that comes up first, will be next, at the moment I don’t know for sure. There are three in particular that are foremost in my mind; I’m researching one, writing the second and planning to meet the author of the novel of the third. One documentary, one feature with documentary strands and one pure fiction feature. I’d like to think that they would all be entirely different, because like most people my age I’m both wary of and impatient with repetition. One of the great challenges is that we live in this media-saturated age where so many stories have been told, rebooted, remade, adapted, packaged and sold; all the while you watch this highway of speeding cars rush by and try to place yourself, try to see a you-shaped gap that isn’t the same as everything else coming off the assembly line, and again, it’s all about bringing something new or interesting or powerful or hopefully all three to an audience that have seen it all before – what gift do you bring for someone who has everything?
Critical Mass says a lot about our actions and choices as human beings. Namely, the decision to reproduce. Has this affected your personal life and your desire to start your own family?
My wife and I have discussed this, as most couples have, and we’re in a place right now where we would both like to have a family but neither of us is in a position to take the time out to do it. We’re lucky though, in the sense that we’re both comfortable with adoption if, for whatever medical or personal reasons, we’re unable to have a child which is biologically ours. Adoption is attractive because of that but also because you are caring for a child that already is here in the world and needs a loving family, which would be a good deed regardless of any population concerns. I’d like to stress, however, that the decision to reproduce is itself exactly the key – there are women worldwide who do not have the right or the wherewithal to make that decision for themselves, or (and we’re seeing this increasingly in the US) are having their options reduced precipitously by ideologues and political opportunists. When there are huge numbers of maternal deaths and unsafe abortions around the world at the same time that there are children who are described by their own mothers as ‘unwanted’ or ‘unplanned’, you obviously have a logistical challenge to provide the healthcare and contraceptive means by which to redress that balance. Simultaneously, you have an ideological or informational challenge to dispel the myths or outright lies surrounding maternal healthcare and contraception in order to put that decision to reproduce where it belongs, which is in the hands of the woman who carries the child, not the government minister who is pandering to religious extremists or the husband or mother-in-law who wants a large family to keep up appearances in their community. Ironically, making this film did change my attitude to having a family, but not in the way that you’d think. As I learnt about the issues and began to understand their complexity, I discarded my more knee-jerk attitudes, which were a holdover from my younger years, and came to realise that we need what Calhoun called a “compassionate revolution”. We need to help one another to be free, to be ourselves, to choose how we live, how we work, how we feed our families and with what, whether we have families or not, and we need to do this from a positive, constructive foundation, not negativity and finger-pointing. My wife and I would love to have a family, to be parents, to have that aspect of personal growth and fulfilment in our lives, but we’d stop at two, or we’d adopt. What other people do is up to them. There are no good guys or bad guys in this world, just people who know what’s up and people who have been mis- or ill-informed. It’s not a fear thing, it’s a love thing.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
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