How to Set a Documentary in the Future

The Age of Stupid  (Spanner Films)

In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the final spirit that visits Ebenezer Scrooge is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. This spirit shows Scrooge visions of a future, if not the future. Mainly the horror is that Scrooge has died and everybody was happy about the fact, but it’s not just a bad future for the one old miser. Tiny Tim has also died as a result of Scrooge’s actions. Possibly other misfortunes have befallen other families under financial hardship as a result of debts owed to the story’s protagonist. But it’s only a possible future, and there’s an implication that he “yet may change these shadows … by an altered life.”

The novella is not a true story, of course, but it can inspire real people with its moral message. The themes surely translated politically to the actual world back then, and Dickens was even credited with influencing an increase in charity and other short-term acts. If there had been more direct address of real issues, citing actual lending houses or banking figures, perhaps A Christmas Story could have been viewed as a work of nonfiction with an added fantasy element for the purpose of pressing an imperativeness on the Anglo-Saxon capitalist Christian world to be more generous, or else greed will be their downfall.

That’s basically what a small number of documentaries are doing when employing a compatible science fiction conceit for real issues. It seems strange on paper that a doc could be set in the future — or a future, as they may be — but such films exist. One of them just recently arrived in the U.S. via YouTube and Vimeo On Demand called The Great European Disaster Movie. The title is a tad bit misleading, but as originally debuted as an episode of the BBC’s Storyville in January, the name wasn’t necessarily trying to woo anyone expecting something like The Day After Tomorrow.

Written and directed by Annalisa Piras, The Great European Disaster Movie follows a fictional archaeologist in the near future as he’s traveling by air to a conference in Berlin. As the plane continually becomes diverted due to weather, the man (acted by Angus Deayton) tells a little girl (Flavia Piras Trow) about the days of the European Union and its eventual collapse. Illustrating his story (and speculative history) is documentary footage shot and set in 2014, the material including news clips, interviews with economists and other experts and even some focus on the outcome of last year’s Eurovision Song Contest.

Another of these future-set documentaries, which also came out of the UK, is Franny Armstrong’s 2009 feature, The Age of Stupid. The title makes it sound like an alternate name for a sci-fi comedy like Idiocracy, but it’s an issue film focused on climate change and stars the late actor Pete Postlethwaite as an archivist living in 2055 looking back at, to him, very old footage from the year 2008 in an effort to find out why man hadn’t done more to stop the global catastrophe that eventually destroyed much of the world. Again, the focus is on our own present and its experts on the issue, as well as news clips and original footage showing warning signs. The same year, ABC aired the similarly minded, worst-case-scenario-focused Earth 2100, which is narrated by a woman in the year 2100 who lived through all the (predicted) devastation of the 21st century.

Both docs work on the same idea as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come from Dickens’s story. They present the likely future that will come true if we continue down the same path we’re on. But they also both suffer from a sense of doom and acceptance of defeat, as if we’re already too far down the road to environmental and economic/political disaster, respectively, and these futures are our certain fate. With The Great European Disaster Movie, though, I have trouble gauging its point of view. Even with its attempt at simplification, clear in its child-as-audience-surrogate device that makes it like the Sophie’s World of explaining EU current events, the impending crisis is a thick topic. Especially for a layman residing outside of the continent in focus.

Not all documentaries set in the future are or have to be so daunting, though there aren’t enough to be sure of their effectiveness. And if they do wind up not depicting the real future, there’s a question of whether they have any lasting significance. Peter Watkins’s The War Game, which turns 50 this year, is now something of a curiosity, and not just because it’s a film with pretty much no actuality material yet won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

It’s also British, of course, initially made for the BBC, and like the other two it deals in speculative nonfiction, presenting in news magazine program format the events of a nuclear attack on the UK by the Soviet Union. Fittingly, the film ends on Christmas Day, though not in the pre-nuke time as a hint that the world is given another chance, a la Scrooge. Still, external of the documentary, the real world did go in another path, away from this alternate nuclear war scenario, albeit not exactly as a result of this Film of Future Yet to Come.

The War Game did lead to a sort of update/remake in the form of the 1984 BBC movie Threads, a doc-style program depicting what life will be like for people in Sheffield, England, following a nuclear war. Despite its format, however, it has never been accepted as a work of nonfiction. It’s merely a faux doc science fiction war drama comparable to the 1983 American TV movie The Day After. These features did have a nonfiction function, however, in that they served as genuine warnings to people about the likely aftereffects of nuclear warfare. In a similar manner, there’s The Weather Channel’s nonfiction series It Could Happen Tomorrow, which involves natural disaster instead of the man-made nuclear variety.

One doc set in the future did come true, and fortunately it was a more optimistic one: the BBC’s Hyperland, which was written by Douglas Adams, of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, and aired in 1990. Adams also stars in the 50-minute “fantasy documentary” alongside Doctor Who’s Tom Baker, playing a software engineer who promises that the TV of the future is interactive multimedia content on the Internet. The doc imagined what the digital age looks like in 2005, and it did all this prophetically before the World Wide Web had really been put into existence.

Ray Kurzweil surely assumes his also-positive 2010 doc The Singularity Is Near will come true. Based on his book of the same name, the feature stars Kurzweil in present-day interview scenes as he explains the concept of the Singularity, and it also features a fictional narrative in which he creates a female robot avatar named Ramona (NCIS star Pauley Perrette) in order to illustratively depict his predictions, and the A.I.’s story continues into future decades. Meanwhile, there have been a few documentaries and nonfiction series set in less-positive futures when man has become extinct or maybe left Earth, such as Life After Man, The Future is Wild and 2008’s Aftermath: Population Zero and Life After People.

Michael Madsen’s exceptionally unsettling 2010 film Into Eternity deals more in the presumption of an evolved human race in the very distant future, but it’s not so much set in that future as it plays like a film to be watched in that time. The focus is on the construction of Finland’s Onkalo nuclear waste repository and the concern for the people and/or aliens that might open the facility and its contents before their point of inertia 100,000 years from now.

Madsen’s latest doc, The Visit, which recently debuted at Sundance, is more speculative than contemplative, and only slightly deals with a near or distant future, whenever it will be that aliens first visit Earth. Current experts on extraterrestrials often, though inconsistently, speak directly to the camera as if they’re talking to an alien visitor, and the device doesn’t land successfully. It’s very corny. But that’s not surprising given the difficulty of execution with such scripted fantasy material inside an otherwise serious nonfiction work. Films like The Age of Stupid and The Great European Disaster Movie at least employee professional performers at least, while The Visit’s problem partly stems from the fact that its real scientists tasked with acting the fiction.

Finally, there’s 2016: Obama’s America, a conservative documentary by Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan set in the future in title only. The film, which was released in 2012, eventually addresses some hypothetical yet-to-come events, like President Obama’s dismantling of the U.S. as a superpower, if he’s to be re-elected that year. As a whole, though, 2016 is about as concerned with the yet-to-come years as any issue film that leaves off with a statement that the future is in our hands. It’s the link between traditional doc model and these experiments in nonfiction futurology.

Do we really need documentaries to play this sci-fi game with important real-life matters? Does The Age of Stupid get its point across about the emergency of climate change better than a regular scaremonger film like An Inconvenient Truth, or is it more like a goofy doc-style partner to The Day After Tomorrow? Future-set speculative docs definitely open themselves up to more controversy and ridicule and skepticism and in turn their causes are more opened up to doubt and ridicule.

With the amount of docs being made today, I can see why such devices are being used in increasing numbers. These films want to stand out and have to be something different to break through. There’s certainly something fascinating and almost kind of fun about what they do, but in the end I don’t know that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come idea works, and not because it hasn’t rid our civilization of greedy misers, nor because Dickens’s own other works are just as notable for their social justice campaigning. When it comes to the need for real impact, there shouldn’t be the allowance of confusion in the viewer, and futurological fiction material can draw focus too far away from the integrity of the truths at hand.

The fact that The Great European Disaster Movie has been easily if maybe not accurately labeled a “mockumentary” by many, mostly those critical of its points and intention, indicates that the style might have been a bad idea. It’s still an interesting doc to watch and hear out, yet in the long run it will probably be seen as a case study for how not to present a pressing issue in documentary. I don’t know the future, though, so I’m appropriately just speculating.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.