Have you ever seen -- or even heard of -- a live documentary? That's what David Cerf and Sam Green's Utopia in Four Movements is labeled, and it is and has the capability to be more organic than most non-fiction films. Really, it's more of an academic lecture with accompanying score and PowerPoint presentation (well, Apple Keynote presentation), but you know a lot of documentaries are like that anyway, just without the in-house presence of the narrator and band. Green recites, with some apparent improvisation, what would otherwise be voice-over, while Cerf mixes the soundtrack from a laptop as members of the Brooklyn-based group The Quavers perform ambient music on guitar, trumpet, violin and vibraphone.
The focus of the film/lecture is the idea of utopia, how it has been attempted and how it likely will never exist, just as Thomas More presumed when he coined the term (utopia = "no place" in Greek). Utopia in Four Movements argues that the progression of events of the 20th century is evidence for why utopia is so difficult to achieve, whether they're related to "good" communities or those horrible pseudo-Utopian societies that squash others with conflicting ideals (see the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge, the KKK, Stalin's Soviet Union, North Korea and way too many other genocides, regimes and organizations from the last hundred years). Yet he does highlight some developments, such as the invention of the shopping mall and the endurance of Castro's Cuba, that at least hint at possibilities for modest utopias, whether based in capitalism or communism.
As its title suggests, Utopia in Four Movements is divided into quarters, the first of which tells us about the history of Esperanto, a language invented in the 1880s to unite the world through a politically and culturally neutral lexicon. Apparently a lot of its speakers were wiped out during and following World War II, but the society continues to grow and thrive with members in all corners of the globe. I'd only heard of Esperanto prior to this film, and I had no idea there is actually an old horror movie starring William Shatner in which all the dialogue is spoken in the constructed language.
Cuba gets its spotlight during the second movement, which looks at the overall concept of revolution and concentrates primarily on African American activist Assata Shakur (Tupac's aunt), who has been living as a fugitive in exile for more than 25 years. From there Green takes us to China for a look at the largest mall in the world. It's mostly empty, of shops and people. Finally, the fourth chapter concentrates on forensic anthropology, a science Green considers in part to be an elegy for the 20th century and also a hopeful means of reminding us of recent history's worst moments, so that we don't repeat them.
Had Utopia in Four Movements been a straight sort of documentary I probably wouldn't be so excited about it, though I am and was fascinated by the subject and Green's exploration of it. Compared to his Oscar-nominated doc The Weather Underground (for which Cerf did the score), though, it's pretty light stuff. But given that most documentaries today aim to be seen on HBO, PBS, Netflix or wherever else audiences are more willing to give them a chance, I love any sort of non-fiction work that necessitates a theatrical experience. While docs are often not cinematic enough to be better suited to the big screen, they are more appropriate for collective viewing than most fiction features. Especially if there's room for the audience to discuss what they've seen afterward. And one of the great things about having the filmmaker/narrator present is there's likely room for a Q&A or similar sort of talk following each screening.
I also see the potential for the live documentary concept with more contestable and controversial films than this one. Imagine if a film like Fahrenheit 9/11 or GasLand or any other such doc that's been highly refuted or debunked could just alter the narration with each screening in order to be more accurate*. I was reminded of how Loose Change has done something similar by outputting new iterations, each version leaving out anything proven wrong and adding in any new developments regarding its 9/11 conspiracy theories. I also like that Green was able to control the pace of his narration and the visuals depending on if he had to wait out audience reactions, especially laughter.
As far as I know, Utopia in Four Movements won't end up on DVD. Not that it would be difficult to simply attach audio of Green and The Quavers more permanently to the film. But some of the point of the film is to bring people together (and to me, a movie theater is a kind of utopia, so that's fitting). More screenings are scheduled throughout the year, including at fests in Maine and San Francisco. To experience a documentary like you've probably never done before, definitely seek out one of the planned showings or find a way to bring it to your neck of the woods while you have the chance. I doubt Green and company will be doing this for too much longer, and I hope they move on to another live documentary after this.
*if need be. I did not mean to necessarily imply either film has inaccuracies, though some people believe they do.