Franny Armstrong

The Age of Stupid: The teachings of stupidity

London Eye. © Spanner FilmsThe world in uncommented pictures: Las Vegas is covered in sand, the Taj Mahal lies in ruins, London is flooded, Sydney is on fire and waves sweep over an Arctic that looks like the present-day Atlantic Ocean. In this Arctic, a hermit with a face typical for science fiction films – a face showing the traces of a risky life – has set up an archive.

The archive: Looking back to the present. © Spanner FilmsIt is the year 2055. In a futuristic, apocalyptic tower, Noah's animal pairs are stored in cans, books are digitalised and the world’s museum exhibits are lined up next to each other. It is the super-archive of a future where something went wrong that still could be prevented today – the consequences of climate change.

This is how the independent docu-fiction film The Age of Stupid begins. Asking the present-time viewers from a fictional future why it was not possible to stop climate change is a clever trick of British director Franny Armstrong. This way, the film dissociates itself from moralising documentaries or affirmative action films right from the very start. In The Age of Stupid, she lets the two levels – feature film and documentary fact film – exist in parallel. The narrator – the lonely survivor in the tower – selects present-time news and film sequences about climate change via a transparent digital interface similar to the one Tom Cruise used in Minority Report.

Trailer The Age of Stupid © Spanner Films

However, the film does not want to do without new documentary scenes: based on five striking scenes, the global context of climate change is displayed. In India, a young entrepreneur establishes the discount airline Go Air; on Mont Blanc, an old mountain guide leads an English family across a former glacier bed; the patriotic Alvin in New Orleans saved his neighbours after Katrina but works for Shell at the same time. The young woman in Nigeria is trained to be a doctor and protests against Shell's environmental pollution, and two Iraqi children wait for their elder brother as refugees in Jordan. The father of the English family plans wind farms. These five scenes are narrated in such an exemplary way that they do not bury the complexity of climate change in a linear story.

Shell gas flare, Nigeria. © Spanner FilmsThe film narrates the local plots in turn and interrupts the individual stories, which are partially recounted very emotionally, with news footage and animations on the daily turnover of Shell, oil as a reason for war or China’s high energy consumption due to its production for the West. While the employees of Go Air exercise emergency scenarios or present their work clothes, the mountain guide demonstrates against the lorries on the Mont Blanc motorway, Alvin searches for oil traces on stones, and the doctor in the Niger Delta walks through the overgrown shell construction of a health centre that never was completed by its sponsor Shell. The Iraqi girl imitates an Al Jazeera presenter, “Hey, you can win 4 SUVs…” – it is clear that the girl or the African doctor dreams about western status symbols like high-emission SUVs.

No to turbines. © Spanner FilmsAlvin, however, does not reflect the connection between Katrina and his lifestyle, but the viewers learn about the connections through the global perspective. However, aside the “teaching moments”, The Age of Stupid also wants to be realistic: climate activism is not always easy. The wind farm engineer, for example, often has to fight against the “windmills” of the locals who do not want their beautiful landscape to be spoilt.

The Alps. © Spanner FilmsThe near-advertising look that was used to shoot the individual stories results in virtually “pictureless” images that are provided as the largest-possible surface for identification. With this soft strategy, the film subjects itself to the rules of the media. Nevertheless or even because it uses the pressurising media of capitalism, the film maker seems to succeed in making her audience more aware of the issue – the film actually was financed by donations of many convinced people.

Vera Tollmann
works as a freelance author and curator in Berlin

Translation: Nicola Mahoney
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V. 2009


    © Spanner Films
    Franny Armstrong (*1974 in London) is a British environmental activist and free-lance documentary film maker. Following her zoology studies at the University College of London, she began to produce independent sociocritical documentations on climate change. Her best-known film so far has been McLibel (1997, 2005), a low-budget production on two poor activists that were sued by the McDonalds group and have to answer to the courts in the longest civil-law court proceedings in the UK. In 2002, she directed Drowned Out on the fight against the Narmada dam in India. The director attracted international attention with The Age of Stupid (2009). Franny Armstrong lives in London.