- Noam Chomsky from Hegemony or Survival and the film's opening quote
Tom Smith: I've just returned from a screening of the new documentary The Kingdom Of Survival at the Cork Film Festival and thought I'd give some views on a film I'd been greatly looking forward to seeing, based on this description by writer/director, M.A. Littler:
The kingdom of survival is an interdisciplinary documentary combining speculative travelogue and investigative journalism in order to trace possible links between survivalism, spirituality, art, radical politics, outlaw culture, alternative media and fringe philosophy...the film investigates physical and psychological survival strategies practiced by groups and individuals in a conflict-ridden and confused post-modern world.
On a positive note, it was intriguing to see a converted-church full of (ostensibly) affluent professionals & academics in decidedly un-radical Cork City watching a piece of blatant anarchist propaganda. Such politics so rarely see the silver screen that this, in itself, was a joy.
However, regarding the quoted film description above, it seems to be trying to do too much, and hence falls flat on its face. As a "travelogue", we get some poseur-style shots of the director, and a small/bland insight into how his personal politics evolved, but not much else. He apparently covers 7,000 miles but we get no sense of the time spent on the road, just a few shots of the expanse of the American landscape.
The film's opening sequence of a man (possibly the director) at work behind a pile of books sets out the film's agenda from the start, as it scans across the spines of the literature, settling on Chomsky on Anarchism. The focus then moves to the first stop, MIT, and a discussion with the venerable professor.
Nothing new comes out of this, for anyone familiar with Chomsky's usual responses to questions on anarchism (that the burden of proof lies on those exercising authority, differentiating between legitimate and illegitimate authority etc.).
He still plays an important role as the foremost critic of U.S. foreign policy but Noam's somewhat-sidelined anarchist politics come across as lacking. To take just one example, at the start of the interview Chomsky categorically states that waged work is inherently equivalent to chattel slavery. Yet he then goes on to laud the great advances that have been made in the last half century, stating that "slavery was once ubiquitous" yet now isn't. Confused? I certainly was.
I simply fail to see the link between an interview with Noam Chomsky and "survivalism, spirituality, art...and fringe philosophy." Furthermore, any anarcho-primitivist could easily spot his lack of a critique of work itself, and his inability to question mass society more generally. His advocating of worker control of industry simply fails to get to grips with the alienation inherent to civilised workplaces and, as ever, he goes to great lengths to focus only on human society, while failing to deal in any way with the crisis of the natural world.
Next comes an interview with Dr. Mark Mirabello, which yields some gems but nothing ground-breaking. He does, at least, recognise the "pure freedom and anarchy" of hunter-gatherers, something which conventional progress-driven anarchists (such as professor Chomsky) ahistorically ignore. His concluding quote, that "freedom by definition is ephemeral" struck me as odd, something I still can't figure out.
Survivalism finally comes into play when we meet Mike Oehler, an underground architect, who escaped normal society in 1968, like so many others, and builds rather interesting earthship-like houses on his 40 acres. He acknowledges that our civilization, like all those which came before, seems to be headed inexorably towards a decline, and says that "the hippies were right all along" regarding whole foods, respect for the environment, alternative medicine etc. Spiritualism also gets a mention here, although only in alarmingly vague terms, and only to fill a gap seemingly left by getting rid of modern gizmos.
When we meet Sasha Lilley (host of the thoughtful radio show, Against The Grain) and Ramsey Kanaan (founder of both AK Press and PM Press), they speak against individualist tendencies on "the left" and, in particular voice opposition to the withdrawalist methods of people such as Oehler, advocating organisation and large-scale political activism. These differences in viewpoints don't get brought up, or discussed/resolved in any way, by the sparse commentary from Littler. In fact, as with the rest of the film, the interviews stand alone and fail to hold a common, coherent thread.
Our final stop is at The Tea Farm where we meet the talented folk musician, Will "The Bull" Taylor. Some beautiful, bucolic cinematography takes place but the interview really seemed somewhat vacuous to me. It remains unclear why Taylor is interviewed at all, being an ancestral cattle rancher, not someone who's sought out a survivalist mode of living.
Ultimately, it's great to see this film showing widely around the world, if only for more people to be exposed to what is, at base, a simplistic anarchism 101. We rightly get, for example, cursory exposure of modern representative democratic systems, and especially the bipartisan U.S. political landscape, as shams. Furthermore, the one theme which seems to run throughout is that of questioning how "objective" the reality we're presented with really is, and whether, in tossing away this reality, we might get some way towards grasping the true enormity of human potential. As stated by our cool-dude, posing director, "the powers at be define a reality, which everyone else is subjected to."
If this film serves as a gateway to people starting to explore radical politics, then that's fantastic, but the misleading self-description and randomness/directionlessness (epitomised in the great, but irrelevant, quotes interspersed throughout) of it all left me feeling a little bit robbed.