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Black Sheep interviews Mathieu Roy

 Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.

When you think progress, you immediately think good things. All the advancement that civilization has brought about – from the technological to the societal – are all clear indicators that human beings are capable of greatness far beyond their original scope. You’d have to be pretty crazy to argue the opposite, right? Well, call him crazy then, because Montreal filmmaker, Mathieu Roy, presents progress as something that could actually be the death of humanity in his new documentary, SURVIVING PROGRESS.

Six years ago, Roy read Ronald Wright’s best-seller, “A Short History of Progress”, and was inspired to make his third non-narrative feature. The book consists of a series of lectures that paint civilization itself as an experiment, and a failing one at that. The rationale is that the ever-growing global civilization, and all the resources required to maintain that continued growth, has reached a point where it will soon become unsustainable. Aside from grappling with that hard reality, Roy was also faced with the difficult task of translating it to film.

Still from Surviving Progress

“We tried many things. At some point, I even considered fictional characters,” Roy explains of his process, revealing also that he debated taking the same non-verbal approach used in films like BARAKA and KOYAANISQATSI. Fortunately for Roy, his production team contained some pretty experienced names to help point him in the right direction, including none other than Martin Scorsese, whom he worked for, as an assistant, when Scorsese shot THE AVIATOR.

It was the film’s executive producer, and director of THE CORPORATION, Mark Achbar, that suggested Roy speak with Harold Crooks, a co-writer on THE CORPORATION. This collaboration was so successful that Crooks would go on to become the co-writer and co-director of SURVIVING PROGRESS. “Harold and I met and he asked what was important to me, what was the essence of the film,” Roy recounts. “We had numerous debates and conversations about it and we came up with a treatment that is not that far from the film we have today.”

Roy photographed for my original Hour Community cover story

Crooks was excited to come aboard. “It’s not every day you get the chance to make a film about the fate of civilization,” Crooks declares with exuberance, yet still fully aware of the weight that opportunity carries. “We had to grow as human beings in our knowledge, and in our understanding of the issues.” And grow they did. For Roy, surviving the intense depth of research necessary to make SURVIVING PROGRESS, brought about some of his life’s most significant personal progress. “It was a heightening experience, an experience that has made me a better human being, someone that definitely understands the mechanism of the world better than I did before.”

Roy again

The issues Roy and Crooks raise are all interconnected and span the full 5000 years civilization has been in existence, which represents but 0.2% of our evolutionary timeline (just one of the fascinating bits of information I drew from the film). They range from the developments in synthetic biology to the relationship between Wall Street and the destruction of the rain forest and even China’s embracing of the capitalist mode of production. Crooks elaborates, “We didn’t want yet another eco-collapse, Wall Street disaster film. Given that civilization is an experiment, there was no guarantee it was going to be a success. So, from that perspective, and with the lessons of previous civilizations that have run over the cliff, we identified key factors that pushed them over the edge, and tried to find them in the present. We then had to weave a tapestry of all of these issues cinematically.”

Still from Surviving Progress

It was important for Roy as well to differentiate SURVIVING PROGRESS from the mounting glut of docs preaching doom and gloom. “Our film digs deeper into human nature and tries to go way back to understand the patterns we create,” he says. Crooks continues Roy’s thought process as seamlessly as one would expect from two people who have been working together on the same project for five years. “From very early on though, we agreed that this would not be a historical film, that it would be rooted in the present and looking forward.”

Speaking of forward, SURVIVING PROGRESS may not provide answers or solutions to the problems it points out in our modern design but, unlike many other fatalist forms of filmmaking, it does provide possibilities. “Technology will not solve the problem. Technology will only further aggravate the problem,” Roy states with conviction. “It’s simply about limits. We provide some solutions but we also show debate on these solutions. It was important for us to provide the audience with an array of different points of view.”

A filmmaker interested in allowing audiences to come to their own conclusions? Now that’s progress we could all survive.


This article originally appeared in Hour Community. SURVIVING PROGRESS is in Quebec cinemas now and is coming to Toronto on December 2.


  1. Thanks for the great insight into Surviving Progress. I saw it at TIFF and keep watching the trailer – – to remind myself that if humans don’t band together to stop such over-consumption, we may be doomed. It is a sobering thought that our advances as a race may eventually be our undoing.

  2. Quite sobering indeed. I hate to say it but I don’t see humanity doing what it needs to without a significant disaster to wake everybody up. Shame really. Great film though!

  3. It is a shame and I tend to agree that it will take a significant disaster to open people’s eyes.

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