Reviews Short Documentary

The Future Decisionmakers (2020) – 3 stars

Director: Amir Shadman

Running time:  30mins

If we think of capitalism as the drunk whose alcohol consumption has spiralled out of control, then the real time for the drunk to decide to abstain is not when waking up with a hangover after a night-long binge, but when the bars are opening after work on a delightful summer’s day. But so many of us felt the hope during the pandemic’s initial lockdown that this time it would be different. We took joy in the countless acts of kindness and solidarity and the heroism of frontline workers putting their lives on the line to get us all through. Maybe the pandemic would be humanity’s great wake-up call.

Amir Shadman shares these hopes and concerns – having taken the opportunity of during lockdown in student accommodation to make The Future Decisionmakers. The film is a straightforward documentary filmed in the halls of residence of a university in Turin, where a group of 14 students are interviewed individually, answering a series of set questions.

Shadman’s personal agenda becomes clear when is revealed when prior to the interviews a fellow student states to camera a key contradiction of contemporary capitalism:

If the seven billion people on Earth were to enjoy the standard of living of the inhabitants of the USA, humanity would require two more planets to produce the resources and dispose of the waste.

The following questions are initially on how the students are using their time during lockdown, their hopes and fears post-lockdown and what they will do post lockdown. Shadman moves on to ask whether the students feel, presumably because of their developed world lifestyle, any personal responsibility for the pandemic. The interviewees are then shown a segment of a film, The Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (co-directed by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier) which we see as well, and the interviewees give their responses to the piece. The segment that Shadman chose is arguably a little weak, centring on a marble quarry with huge machines gouging giant chunks of rock from a mountainside. The scene uses a standard technique of environmental film-making (Werner Herzog et al) – an apocalyptical musical accompaniment taken from the classical catalogue – in this case a blood and thunder aria from Don Giovanni.

While the child in me enjoyed the ending where a worker hoses down the end-product marble as though they are pissing on it, like the majority of interviewees I was left baffled by the piece. One interviewee could only think to comment that it was a fairly standard construction scene. Meanwhile, in one of the film’s only moments of (unintentional) levity, an engineering student notes they had seen health and safety violations by the quarry workers. This was not the response, I assume, Shadman had hoped for. Indeed, it should have been easy to extract a very different set of answers corresponding to the film – just glancing at the trailer for Anthropocene I caught two scenes – child labourers combing through a gigantic rubbish dump, the horrors of Canadian tar sands extraction – which would have been far more challenging and confrontational. Possibly Shadman was constrained in choice by copyright issues but I would suggest the inclusion of the segment was a bad call in this case.

With regards to the less leading questioning, the students are asked what response they would take, if in a future job, they found out their employer was illegally harming the environment. By titling the film, The Future Decision Makers, Shadman reveals a key aim of the interview questions: to establish how important environmental and ethical concerns will be for the students in their future jobs. An issue with this is that Shadman shows a great deal of faith in the career prospects of the cohort which might be a little too sanguine: there is a real possibility, if the planet survives long enough, that many jobs for first degree graduates from non-elite universities will disappear into the great maw of AI and machine learning.

However, with that being said, Shadman shows a great eye for the telling shot – my favourite example of this was the picture of the students’ meals after they had been delivered; anaemic yellowy gruel in covered white containers, set on a pale table cloth, in a white, almost numinous alcove. Priceless. Over the course of the film, camera work and editing like this help the viewer get the feeling of the students’ sterile, dystopian life in lockdown – possibly alluding to the coming sci-fi horror which may well await many of today’s graduates.

I also enjoyed Shadman’s interview technique – low-key and empathic – demonstrating an ability to tease out the students’ inner thoughts and emotions. A favourable contrast to many, particularly male, politically engaged documentary makers who insist, like dogs, on leaving their scent on every frame – where are you Michael Moore?

It is a testament to Shadman’s skill as an interviewer that I felt that I had got to know the students well, even though they were only on screen for relatively short time. The stand-out comment on what they have learned during lockdown comes from a gym fanatic student:

Never take anything for granted…anything can be taken from you.

Again, however, there are problems with the formatting of the interviews; it is not always clear which question is being put to the interviewee as they are handed notes which, presumably, contain the text of the question. On a positive note, this technique helped to prime the interviewees’ responses, allowing them to properly understand and unpack the question – but it left this viewer somewhat confused. Including a verbal cue for the benefit of the audience would have been a simple and effective solution to this, but as this was lacking, while the personalities of the individual students came across strongly, it seems to have come at the expense of a coherent narrative for the central ethical and environmental theme.

In The Future Decision Makers, we are given a rich and nuanced portrayal of the life of a group of students caught, frozen in pandemic lockdown. However, there is a gap which is never properly filled in to illustrate how the lockdown experience might feed into the way the students would live their future lives, or how they would incorporate ethical and environmental concerns into their worldviews. Part of the failure to deliver on the promise of the title may be explained by the Margaret Mead problem – telling the anthropologist what they want to hear. Given the constraints of being locked down together and given that Shadman’s environmentalist agenda comes across so strongly – it is unsurprising that nobody volunteered that they were aspiring to be a robber-baron who would happily betray the needs of the planet for their own self-interest. Either way, Shadman has still shown great competence as a filmmaker and produced a valuable historical document during the tough conditions of lockdown. I hope he is able to develop the themes he started to explore in The Future Decision Makers in any future work – our planet is certainly in existential need of such efforts.

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