Overweening Generalist

Friday, April 22, 2016

Critical Mass (2012 Mike Freedman): Interview with the Filmmaker

In mid-July 2012 I blogged on John B. Calhoun and his experiments with rats and overpopulation. A documentary filmmaker read the post and contacted me, because he liked that I was addressing Calhoun and he'd just made a film about him, but the main topic was world human population. He sent me a password so I could watch his as-yet unreleased film. And I was impressed.

This interview was conducted at the end of 2012; I was waiting for an alert from Freedman about the official release date, and I must have missed it. I've been meaning to get this out, and Earth Day seems like as good a day as any. The film has done very well so far. (HERE's the trailer.)


OG: Where were you born and raised, what are/were your parent's occupations, and were intellectual ideas discussed around the dinner table?

Mike Freedman: I was born in New York City and raised in London.  My father is a playwright and director of theatre and my mother was in banking.  Family dinners were a fixture, and ideas were very much discussed - questions were answered, words were defined and looked up in the dictionary.  More broadly, although my parents weren't lavish spenders on "things", they were always of the belief that money spent on books was never wasted, so visits to book stores always yielded prizes.  We were also a family that attended theatre, concerts and films and then discussed them afterwards, and as children we were allowed to have an opinion and encouraged to frame it and defend it intelligently.  Disagreement was not discouraged, so I grew up in quite an aggressive environment intellectually speaking - if you had an idea, you had to be prepared to defend it and clarify it, and taking offence at being called out on something was looked down upon.

OG: When did you first get interested in sustainability, and human survival on the planet? I saw EF Schumacher's name near the end credits of special thanks, which listed your family first, if I remember correctly. Schumacher's books on "buddhist economics" were a big deal for me along these lines, way back when I was 18 or so.

Freedman: In terms of how I viewed the genesis of environmental crises or human conflicts, I recall always seeing them as byproducts of humans competing with one another or being crowded together.  I never thought of myself as an activist, but I suppose my intellectual curiosity about the complexity of these issues simply led me to the rational view of our planet as a holistic system of which we are a part, albeit a part currently engaged in some rather systemically disruptive behaviour.  There were three books in particular that gave me the vocabulary and intellectual framework with which to navigate and share this view: The Human Zoo by Desmond Morris, The Soul of the Ape by Eugene Marais and Small is Beautiful by EF Schumacher.  Honourable mention must also go to Our Inner Ape by Frans de Waal, a fantastic book.  As an aside, I should say that my interest in human survival on this planet is the same as everyone else's really - I suppose I was just raised and educated in a way that helps me to filter out the cultural programming and status-seeking noise of our social and economic structures sufficiently that I can see where this road leads if we continue down it.

OG: The footage of Calhoun was mindblowing, and you and your editor inserted the clips in very effective points in the narrative. I was reminded of something William Gibson said about narrative, that it was about the "controlled release of information." Your film does this masterfully. Say a little something about how you found the Calhoun footage and the process in which you chose to use it: simple story-boarding? 

Freedman: Calhoun's work was done using public funding, and as such the law places the films of his experiments in the public domain.  This was a very big help for us.  John Rees, the head archivist at the National Library of Medicine, was an absolute angel in terms of tracking down his boxes and tapes, and then of course finding a way to get me copies of the footage.  Without that man's help, this film would still be in my head for sure.  In terms of how we use the footage, it was always intended that we tell Calhoun's story as the main arc of the film, but with almost 200 hours of interviews, cut-aways and archive I got bogged down pretty badly.  I ended up at one point with a pretty lumpen chapter structure which the editor discarded and then strung the information out along the length of the film in a much more dramatically effective manner.  No story-boarding - after I'd logged the footage and snipped out all the tidbits I knew I wanted (which resulted in a ridiculously self-indulgent 3 hour cut), the editor and I sat down and spent our first day together discussing the structure of the film. After that, we just worked to the plan and kept grinding it out until we had it done.  The key was to allow visual breaks that still delivered information even if the audience felt that they were getting a rest.

OG: The main reason I think you have a winner here - beside the fact it's so well-put-together - is that Al Gore's power point An Inconvenient Truth film was so well-received. Now, that may have something to do with the power of Al Gore, but your issues encompass his. We shouldn't denigrate global warming, obviously, but the issues your film discusses a much larger set of pressing concerns. Gore covered global warming, and it seems you've covered everything else! The problem with films like yours, for some viewers, may be that the information is so scary and overwhelming (and this issue is addressed in your film, I know), that viewers may react with a sort of paralyzed anxious passivity, which Calhoun himself foresaw. But the film isn't all doom and gloom. There are rays of hope, a way out. What are some of the things that you have done to personally now that you have such a high level of awareness? What do you think the viewers can start doing the moment they walk out of the theater? What are some of the best organizations they may want to pay attention to? I LOVED the link to the books on the website; I've read about 60% of those and want to read the rest now.

                                  documentarian Mike Freedman

Freedman: Well, when we were making the film we knew that there was a very fine line between scaring people enough that they feel they must do something and scaring them so much that they feel there's nothing they can do.  In terms of what can be done, I would suggest three main levels of action: the individual, the community and the political.  As an individual, you have a certain range of choices that you can make, and by making certain changes you not only show others by your actions what it is that you would like them also to be doing, you show yourself that you are capable of change and capable of exerting will over your own life and actions.  The latter cannot be overstated - so many of us feel either powerless, or entrenched, calcified, not only knowing what we can do but not even feeling that we can do it.  Doing something, no matter how minor, is a step, and as the saying goes, a single step is where the journey begins.  The more you work on yourself, the more you prove to yourself that you are capable of will, of change, the more will power you gain and the more changes you can make.  The individual level of action is not only the primary but ultimately, in this wild and mysterious world, the only level of true action.  At the community level, you can work to know your neighbours, to source your food and energy not only sustainably but locally, to build genuine resilience and democracy.  I'm fond of saying that democracy functions best at the local level, municipal and at most state.  Much further than state democracy and the people who are governed are too far removed from their leaders and vice versa.  How many people from Nebraska can or will go all the way to DC to protest or deliver a petition?  So how can a Nebraska representative at the federal level truly represent his people if he never sees the majority of them, or speaks with them or lives among them.  That's why federal officials serve the interests they serve - they work with the people who are there.  In a sense, everyone else simply isn't real to them in any meaningful way.  Which brings me to the political level - certain changes can only be made structurally to our system as a whole.  Personally, I believe that we have certain flaws in the system itself that absolutely must be addressed if we are going to collectively do anything about these issues.  The money creation mechanism, the economic imperative of growth because of the debt-based nature of our financial system, the gutting of education to extract creativity and critical thinking (and also to focus purely on the intellect at the expense of the emotions and intuition of the child), the crushing ubiquity of consumer marketing and PR pablum which makes genuine civic discourse nearly impossible, the corrosive effect of money on politics, the rise of multi-nationals operating beyond the realm of national law, the Bretton Woods institutions, the homogenisation and monopoly of media production through mergers and acquisitions...the list goes on and on.  Second verse, same as the first.  These issues can't be addressed only with community gardens and blue-sky thinking - it's wrong to suggest otherwise.  But it is also true that the political level is the furthest removed from the individual's sphere of influence, and yet exerts an undue impact on the range of decisions that individual is able to make.  So if I were to recommend organisations to your readers, I would suggest looking into Positive Money in the UK (www.positivemoney.org.uk) and the American Monetary Institute in the US (www.monetary.org). Ultimately, without a complete redesign of our monetary system and economic priorities, no other structural factors will really change.  So as I said earlier, the best and most immediate thing you can do is change yourself.

OG: One things that's very impressive is the sheer number of knowers you have in the film, and how articulate and animated, interesting and passionate they are. For some people - like Desmond Morris, Jon Adams, and John Michael Greer - I imagine they were ready to give you good stuff from the start, for their varying reasons. But is there anything you do to work up an interview subject so that they become as animated as they were? What I mean is: there are a lot of "talking heads" here, but they're never boring. 

Freedman: First of all, thank you.  That was always a concern and luckily, the passion and charisma of the people we interviewed shines through.  Those people are just like that - I can't take any credit for their engagement and their excitement about their subject matter.  If I did anything, it was only preparing for the interview by familiarising myself with their work so that they could speak freely without feeling that they were dealing with someone who didn't know who they were or what they really did.

OG: Tell us about your previous work, and how long it took from gestation to finish this film. Were there any particular films that influenced you to make Critical Mass?

Freedman: Critical Mass is my first feature documentary, and also my first feature-length project.  Previously, I'd made some short films, music videos, the usual.  Although I obviously was interested in the subject for a long time, we shot the first interviews for this film in June 2010, so it's been almost exactly two years in the making.  As far as influence goes...when I was about 13, we watched excerpts from Koyaanisqatsi in a poetry class and I later tracked the full film down and it is still one of my absolute favourites.  I watch it about once a year, and it's the gold standard of pure cinema - music, montage, technique, framing, social observation, political statement, environmentalism, poetry, history...like Network, it's even more powerful now than it was then because all of those things are still happening.  The Corporation is another documentary I have a lot of respect for, and the work of Adam Curtis at the BBC is also a pretty big deal for me.  And of course Peter Watkins - I actually tracked down the editor of The War Game, Michael Bradsell, and he came and sat with me a few times to discuss cutting and structure for the trailer and for the film.

OG: When I finished watching, I thought, "Finally! The Exponential Function has its film!" I just want to thank you for this. But why isn't this stuff better-known? Why can't we think from a systems view better than we do? How come my educated friends have never heard of John B. Calhoun? 

Freedman: Okay, so one question at a time.  First, the exponential function isn't better known because it's actually very difficult to internalise.  Even making an animation of it was nearly impossible, because the numbers of little people got so big so quickly that the animator was freaking out trying to make it look good instead of just confusing.  There's a theory about human evolution that because we developed in small hunter-gatherer bands with small family units, we actually can't really picture numbers much higher than three.  There's one - me, two - me and my mate, and three - me, my mate and our baby.  Much above that is just fog to the mind since there's no corollary to latch onto. So up front it's important to say that the exponential function is very hard to get your head around. 

As to our lack of a holistic system-view, I suppose there are many reasons for that. The impact of economists in lending academic legitimacy to the destructive growth narrative we are programmed to believe in cannot be overstated.  Counteracting a dominant establishment belief will always take a lot of time and effort, and come at a great cost - if you want to know how receptive the academic establishment can be to new information about the world, look up a man called Ignaz Semmelweiss. He tried to tell doctors that they should wash their hands before delivering babies in the late 19th century and their response was to tell him he was crazy. He died in an asylum and a few decades later, Pasteur and Lister proved him right. Nowadays I can't eat an apple without my wife yelling at me to wash it first. Economics is only really now, and barely at that, starting to acknowledge the existence of the natural world as an important limiting factor on growth.  Our planet doesn't come with a manual telling us what the thresholds and limits are, so as long as the prevailing mindset is one of 'progress', i.e. growth of human numbers and material throughput, the lack of a line in the sand allows for the excuse that since we don't know what the limits are we can get away without worrying about them. That argument obviously is as attractive to politicians as it is to economists, and that helps dictate the narrative structure of our society and therefore what we grow up knowing about the world around us and our role in it.  The overtly non-holistic nature of Western thinking also has a lot to do with it. Our educational and financial systems, our industrial capitalist ideology, our advertising and creative landscapes are worlds of components, of isolates. Factor in the denigration of emotion and instinct in favour of the intellect and you have a recipe for a society that does not see a world of intimately connected life-spirit-matter-energy engaged in a constant feedback from all parts to all parts.

Why haven't your friends heard of Calhoun? Calhoun retired from NIMH in the early 1980s; a new director was appointed who changed the focus of their work from understanding behaviour to medicating behaviour. Calhoun saw the writing on the wall - it was clear that NIMH was focused on targeting behaviour with drugs rather than understanding and working with behaviour in a more organic way. His work, which is all about complexity and nuance, didn't fit with the new idea that there should be a pill that solved the symptoms and therefore there would no longer be a problem. That might explain why his behavioural studies were de-emphasised in academia from that time on. There's also the over-simplified interpretation of his work, i.e. crowding causes violence, which when put in those bald terms is not a defensible assertion; that reduction of his work was used to 'debunk' him in the minds of some sociologists, such as Claude Strauss-Fischer, with whom I exchanged a spirited series of emails during my research on the film. His experiments and his broader viewpoint on where humanity might be headed and what we could do about it kind of fell in the memory hole. This was a man who predicted the internet as we know it today, including tablet and handheld devices (which he called 'new information prostheses'), in 1970. His ideas on evolution and the future of our species were and remain to this day not only remarkable but unique. I suppose it's inevitable that he's largely unknown. He didn't invent anything of immediate potential for commercial exploitation by the establishment and as such he remains less famous than the guy that came up with the Pet Rock. Go figure.

OG:  What do you anticipate will be the main lines of negative criticism from Big Biz reviewers who would feel threatened by the ideas in Critical Mass? I think you have massive Truth on your side, but I'm scared/disappointed by how Monsanto et.al. were able to sway Californians from saying yes to the labeling of modified foods...as merely a minor example.

Freedman: Criticisms:

1. Environmentalists in general and population concern in particular is really just misanthropy - they don't like people, they don't want them to have nice things and they're wrong.
2. Any talk about the subject of population is really just an undercover attempt to encourage eugenics, sterilisation, genocide and coercive population control.
3. People aren't just a mouth to feed, they have two hands to work, innovate and create, so net production is higher than consumption.
4. Everyone on the planet could fit into [insert name of small country] shoulder to shoulder, so there's plenty of space.
5. Tertullian thought the planet was overpopulated almost two thousand years ago and he was wrong, so any assumptions about carrying capacity are pointless.
6. Everything is fine now and therefore always will be, and Chicken Littles always make plenty of noise about whatever.
7. We've always managed to produce more food than we need.
8. I'm an agent of the Illuminati hellbent on the eradication of 80% of the world's population in line with the suggestions made on the Georgia Guidestones by our lizard overlords.


1. It isn't and we're not. I like people and I want them to have nice things like clean air, drinkable water, healthy food, personal space and mental/emotional wellbeing.
2. Population concern did originate in its modern form out of some rather unsavoury eugenics movements during the early 20th, and terrible things have been done in the name of eugenics and coercive population control. I am not in favour of coercive population control, I think that the manner in which current coercive policies are enforced is barbaric and as an asthmatic bespectacled Jew with allergies whose wife has scoliosis and had a full blood transfusion at birth, I can assure you that I am not remotely advancing a eugenic argument in any shape or form.
3. Physically true, arguably specious but largely irrelevant since the theme of the film is crowding and its impact on us in a qualitative sense.
4. I've heard this many times and all I can ask is: if we're standing shoulder to shoulder, what do we do if we want to sleep or poop? Another semantic point which ignores the truth of our situation.
5. Tertullian did think that, and for the record the empire he was living in collapsed, but let's leave that aside for now. I don't use the word "overpopulation" if I can help it, and I personally don't argue about 'too many people' - what matters to me is the quality of the individual human life experience and a kinship to other living things. We are not talking about carrying capacity per se, but what limits (crowding included) can or will do to us and our life on this planet. I don't think that's a pointless conversation.
6. Someone will always be convinced that the world is about to end. However, it's equally true that someone will always be convinced that it won't. Watch the sinking of Hy-Brazil from Erik the Viking and you'll see what I mean - http://youtu.be/d8IBnfkcrsM.
7. So far that's been true, and don't get me started on the inequity of food distribution in the world, which is a serious problem of economic and political power rather than genuine supply.  However, the uptick in food production in the 20th century was largely due to the work of Norman Borlaug, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work - he's credited with being instrumental in feeding over a billion people. In his Nobel acceptance speech, Borlaug said (and you can check Nobel's website if you want) that no advances in food production would make a difference in the long run if we didn't also look at population. In fact, if you took that excerpt from his speech and sent it to your average 'concern debunker', they'd probably write him off as a hardcore Malthusian rather than the guy that saved a billion people from starvation.
8. I'm nobody's agent and I'm not hellbent on anything, least of all eradication of anyone. I can't even stand up without grunting these days. Georgia is a lovely state (and also a very cool country), but I've never been to nor read firsthand the inscription on the Guidestones. I receive no endorsement, funding or creative input from reptilian extraterrestrial or extradimensional beings. Fact.

OG: When is the film due for release?

Freedman: Good question! I'm talking with distributors now, and our best case scenario is looking like six to nine months for securing broadcast/theatrical/DVD. No date fixed as yet.

OG: Are you showing it at any festivals or special showings in large cities?

Freedman: We've been invited to a festival in Canada in May which I can't disclose yet as we're still talking with them, and we've submitted to several festivals throughout the world that, if we were accepted, would be happening over the next four to six months.

OG: What's the distribution looking like right now?

Freedman: At the moment our strategy is looking like educational only for six months, then commercial release once we've placed it with a theatre chain or broadcaster, followed by DVD and online. Nothing fixed yet.

The earlier the better, or just before it comes out and generates a buzz? What are your ideas?

I think that at present, anything we put out there would be buried in the Yuletide snowdrift. Best to wait until there is some sort of event or announcement, either a distribution date or festival appearance. If that's alright with you.

OG: "New Documentary Film Critical Mass Will Do For Human Population What Al Gore Did For Global Warming"

Freedman: I like the ring of it and the sentiment, but two concerns occur to me, both of which might very well be me being over-cautious.

1. Al Gore is a dreadful hypocrite.
2. Al Gore showed that global warming was bad, so would that mean we're saying people are bad? Or can we be confident people will understand that you mean raising awareness?

OG: When you approach financial backers, what's the short explanation when they ask, "What's it about?"

Freedman: "Critical Mass is a feature documentary about the impact of human population growth and consumption on our planet and on our psychology." 

That's the elevator pitch. I've got it down to the point where I can reel it off in one breath.

OG: How do you feel about being compared to Al Gore?

Freedman: Well, on the one hand it's encouraging that people feel the film does for population what he did for climate change, but on the other, as I said above, he's a dreadful hypocrite, so hopefully they mean the comparison in relation to his film and not to his behaviour.

OG: I loved the stuff about the empowerment of women, near the end of the film; it reminded me of Bucky Fuller. 

Freedman: Thank you. Interestingly, when we showed the film in the US there were cheers at that part. In the UK and Europe, not so much. So perhaps Americans need to hear it said out loud, or perhaps Europeans are more numb. Who knows?

I'm a fan of Bucky Fuller - I actually was reading Critical Path in the run-up to making the film. And I tried to have a prototype of his fog gun shower built as part of the 'solutions' section at the end, but there weren't any available working blueprints for it.

OG: I saw that you interviewed Derrick Jensen and and Aubrey de Grey, but they apparently got cut. With Aubrey, I imagined it was because the problem of living to 200 and the environment was too much for a film already brimming with ideas and possible future scenarios? How was Jensen? What do you think of the life extension people like Aubrey?

Freedman: Derrick and Aubrey didn't make the film for two different reasons.  Derrick was actually interviewed over the phone for what was meant to be a podcast, but the line was bad and the sound was unusable. However, the conversation gave me so much food for thought that I felt he deserved a credit. Aubrey was interviewed on camera, but our conversation was much more future-oriented and the film deals mainly with how we got to this point and what the present situation is, meaning there wasn't room for adding in his particular brand of futurism. Both Aubrey's and Derrick's conversations with me are now chapters in a book that I'm putting together which (fingers crossed) may be available soon. I just need to transcribe two more conversations, write the conclusion and do the endnotes.

Derrick was inspirational to put it mildly. He's not a man everyone will agree with, but he speaks with straightforward honesty and passion (and compassion) and that is truly inspiring.

Aubrey would say that he's a rejuvenation biotechnologist, not a life extension guy. I'd say that consequence and mechanism are not that easily separable in his field. I think that if he (or one of the other labs working on it) is successful, the timeline of how things unfold will be much less egalitarian than the way he perceives it. 

OG: Do you have an opinion on Jared Diamond's book Collapse

Freedman: Jared Diamond is the only person I contacted who declined to be interviewed for the film. Two others, Mike Ruppert and Robin Dunbar, simply never got back to me, but Diamond said no all three times that I asked him. That moved his book off my immediate list of reading because I had to read the work of the people I was meeting, and because of that I haven't read it. What I do know is that I interviewed Joe Tainter who wrote The Collapse Of Complex Societies and he is quite unequivocal about the fact that he finds Diamond's scholarship in Collapse to be dubious. The way he put it is that Diamond's thesis is the basis of the book rather than the evidence of how collapses actually unfolded. I couldn't possibly comment as I haven't read it.

OG: Are there any others that have come along recently that you'd like to share with my readers?

Freedman: After a hardcore two years on a non-fiction diet, locking the picture on the film drove me to seek refuge in fiction, ironically dystopian sci-fi to be precise. In the past year I read (among others) The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth and The Death of Grass by John Christopher, a book that I now desperately want to make into a film (although it was adapted - in a typically 70s hack manner - by Cornel Wilde). I've also been reading material for research on two other docs I'm developing, as well as quite a bit of Ferlinghetti's poetry recently. I also read Black Elk Speaks (the annotated anniversary edition) last year - there's a passage in there where Black Elk describes his people as an ever-eroding island in a sea of white men which I found quite affecting. Next on my list of dystopian fiction is Paolo Bacigalupi - several of my friends have gotten religion about his work, so I'm going to check it out. 

As an aside, you reminded me that I only put non-fiction on the reading list on our website, and there are two fiction books (not admitted by the authors to have been influenced by Calhoun, but nonetheless thematically consistent and from the same time period) called Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison and Stand On Zanzibar by John Brunner that I need to add. I got in touch with Harry (who lives here in the UK) about interviewing him for the film - he's still very much of an opinion on population, but we never found a place to put it in the structure so we never shot it.

Regarding The Great Bay, I'll look it up - it reminds me of the Bill Hicks routine about Arizona Bay, the coastline formed when California falls into the sea. If I'm not mistaken, that was also an Edgar Cayce prediction?

Again, thank you so much for your passion for the film. It's very encouraging and I'm proud to have you as an ally.

1 comment:

Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece. I don't have much to say except that I loved Stand on Zanzibar when I read it 35 years ago, and I also enjoyed The Space Merchants and Black Elk Speaks.