Warm reception: Franny Armstrong, eschewing the camera, took her climate change film "The Age of Stupid" to a welcoming San Francisco Int'l Film Fest audience.

SFIFF52: Planet Armstrong

Lynn Rapoport May 6, 2009

Franny Armstrong is a fast talker. That is, if the breathless clip at which she answered questions after Sunday’s San Francisco International Film Festival screening of her climate-change film, The Age of Stupid, is any indication. Then again, the British documentarian (McLibel, Drowned Out) has some pressing information to convey. And as her film makes plain, and as she engagingly reiterated during the Q&A—where she used audience questions as starting points for rattled-off anecdotes, wry asides, and pleas for the involvement of everyone sitting in the theater—there isn’t much time left.

In seven months, on December 7 of this year, the political leaders of the planet will be sending their representatives to Copenhagen for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or Cop15, where the framework for a global response to the crisis will be established. Given the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s projection that we need to cap carbon dioxide emissions by 2015 to avert runaway climate change, and given that individual allegiances to clotheslines, bicycles, and metal water bottles are like nice little drops in a very large bucket, it sounds crazy but isn’t to say, as Armstrong does, that Cop15 is pretty much our last chance to avoid planet-level catastrophe. The Age of Stupid will be screening there too, as it happens, but as Armstrong pointed out, too late to have an impact on attendees’ actions, which will have been concretized in deals concluded before anyone steps off a carbon dioxide-emitting plane in Denmark.

What happens if the deals go sour? The Age of Stupid, a documentary encased like a time capsule inside a fictive but science-based, frighteningly possible future, has some answers. In 2055, a man (Pete Postlethwaite) sits alone inside the Global Archive, a facility towering above the ice-free offshore waters of the Arctic. Facing a souped-up-iPhone-like interface, he is composing a document of inaction, of a civilization’s slow, stubborn suicide. Why, he asks, didn’t we do anything when we had the chance? The camera has swept across the planet before arriving here, and the scenes of environmental devastation, the desolation of what life remains, are a well-wrought vision of what we can expect if we don’t make immediate, radical changes.

To demonstrate how far we are from doing so, the film shows Postlethwaite pulling together from his digital archive an array of news clips, animations, and interviews with six subjects from around the globe: Nigeria, India, England, Iraq/Jordan, France, and the United States. The animations were made for the film by a team of 18 designers juggling aesthetic styles to suggest diverse provenances, but the reportorial segments date from the past half century or so and were pulled from the archives of real-life news outlets. And the people are the real-life subjects of Armstrong’s documentary as originally envisioned, before she decided to experiment with inlaying speculative elements. The interplay of nonfiction and fiction has the eerie effect of making the latter feel true. And the documentary subjects’ disparate concerns, ambitions, and immediate realities illustrate the immeasurably complicated web of factors informing the problem of global warming.

This complicated web also informs Armstrong’s admittedly lofty goal of reaching 250 million viewers with her film—and convincing each of them to join the production’s Not Stupid action campaign. That’s the equivalent of five-sixths of the U.S. population, which, come to think of it, would certainly have been a good place to start (the film opened in the U.K. in March), considering our overachievements in carbon dioxide output. Unfortunately, the U.S. "People’s Premiere" won’t take place until September, but those interested in the campaign, or in organizing a screening, can learn more at