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Silverdocs: A conversation with Utopia in 4 Movements Director Sam Green

Tessa Moran, Washington City Paper, Jun. 29, 2010

There’s something sublime about being read to—going on a journey without having to steer the wheel. The Brothers Grimm had the perfect formula for it with their fantastical stories of good and evil that neatly packaged exacting lessons of morality, virtue and vice.

I recalled those tales while watching the “live” documentary Utopia in 4 Movements, which was screened (or rather, performed) during this year’s Silverdocs Film Festival. It’s “live” in that director Sam Green narrates the film in person and cues a series of images and video from a laptop while co-director David Cerf mixes and cues sound and a live band—Brooklyn’s The Quavers—play a soundtrack.

It’s a big topic, so rather than a survey of Utopian movements, the film is a collection of Green’s thoughts on what he deems the “utopian impulse” for an ideal society, one which Sir Thomas More suggested in his famous allegory Utopia is unreachable. After all, in Greek, utopia means “nowhere.” Unlike the Brothers Grimm, Green offers no settling moral lesson for the crumbling failures of the 20th-century impulse he documents, so there’s really no happily-ever-after in this tale. Rather, the film leaves you with useful, if painful, questions.

Green spoke with the audience post-screening and later responded to additional questions I sent along. Here’s what he had to say.

Q&A below the jump.

CP: How does this movie compare with The Weather Underground, for which you were nominated for an Academy Award?

SG: To me, there’s a lot of themes that run through both. The Weather Underground was a movie I made a few years ago that Dave Cerf did the music for about the radical political movement. I sort of felt that that was a movie about trying to look at the wreckage of the sixties and try to pull some measured sober non-Pollyanna hope out of that time. In some ways this movie is the same thing. It’s looking at a more complicated time, a time when people don’t have such imagination for the future. Trying to figure out how we got here and if there’s any small way to move forward. I don’t actually have the answers to those questions, but those are questions that interest me.

CP: The live elements of the film hark back to the era of silent film. How much were you influenced by these old methodologies and what do you see as modern about your approach?

SG: There are a number of antecedents for this kind of thing in film history. There’s the Benshi tradition in Japan—live narrators before the talkies. One form I am influenced by is the travelogue. When I was a kid growing up in East Lansing, Mich., my grandmother would take me to see travelogues at Michigan State University. What travelogues were was someone would go to Europe or Asia or some other far-off land, and shoot photos or film and come back and narrate it as a public performance. There were professional travelogue people. It was a great live cinema form. One that has pretty much vanished. But it had a big influence on me. Another influence is Guy Madden and his recent “live film” Brand Upon the Brain. It was a regular Guy Madden movie, but there was live narration, a live band, and live foley. It was sublime.

CP: What about a “live documentary” is utopian, if at all?

SG: One of my big fears was that if I made this a more straightforward film, people would end up watching it on an iPod or a laptop while checking email. I love the internet and technology—don’t get me wrong—but with my own films, I want them to be meaningful, to linger with people. The context—the way that they are experience—makes a big difference. I love the theatrical experience. There is something utopian about sitting in a movie theater with a bunch of strangers and all losing yourselves in this heightened experience. Utopia is almost always about a collective experience.

CP: In the many stories you documented— a forensic anthropologist searching for the unidentified bodies of victims in Bosnia, the invention of Esperanto, a universal language for all the world’s people, the now empty massive mall in China, an American expat living in Cuba—which one do you feel best reflects utopian ideals and why?

SG: Probably Esperanto. It fits so neatly into an arc of the 20th century and a flowering of utopian energy in the early years, with a waning of idealism and utopian spirit by the end.

CP: There was no mention of the Israeli kibbutz movement, arguably the most successful utopian movement in modern memory. Can you explain your decision behind this?

SG: There are tons and tons of stories about utopia. People often ask if I’m going to touch on—fill in the blank—from Oneida to the Shakers to Drop City to kibbutzes. The truth is, I only am drawn to things that resonate with me for one reason or another. This is not any kind of objective survey of utopian projects. This is a poetic and personal film. Personally, I am not super interested in kibbutzes or other small-scale utopian projects or experiments. I am much more interested in a kind of utopian impulse that involves changing the world, not building a small haven, or a small model utopia. I am interested in big projects that try to remake the world completely. Socialism, Esperanto, etc.

CP: How much of the narration and music is improvisational and how much is scripted/composed?

SG: It’s all scripted, but we change it some each time. We try to improve it. We are like a comedian, doing shows to hone a routine.

CP: The film paints a rather bleak picture of the utopian impulse over the years. Do you view the impulse as still alive?

SG: Of course it’s still alive. And honestly, although there is some bleakness in the film, I do want it to be hopeful. It’s not cotton-candy hope, but my goal is to excavate some measured hope from the wreckage of the 20th century. What my friend Jose Munoz calls ‘educated hope.’ Hope that is realistic and takes into account the history that we live with, but at the same time points to something larger, some greater set of ideas.

CP: Will you be traveling with this film with the band and all?

SG: Sometimes that question is asked in this incredulous way: So you can only show this film when you’re there. What are you thinking? The follow up to that is, how are you going to make any money? I think we’ve all enjoyed doing this and we’re going to keep doing it as long as we all enjoy it. So we have shows the rest of the year and it’s like a band. For a filmmaker, I always wanted to be in a band so this is maybe the closest I can get. So we’re going to keep doing it and see what happens. One great thing about doing a live piece is that we are able to change it each time and hopefully make it better. You might not have realized it but you’re like a test audience, a focus group. We try things and if they work we keep doing them and if they don’t work we change it. So doing it live is a great way to make it better.

Photograph By Ben Crosbie

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