What’s the World Coming To?

Magnus Isacsson takes on Orwell and Huxley

16 mins read

FOR SOME YEARS NOW, there’s been a battle going on in the back of filmmaker Magnus Isacsson’s head. “But it wasn’t until I saw an article in the Manchester Guardian Weekly, comparing our society with the visions of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, that I realized it could be an idea for a film.” An avid reader of both Orwell and Huxley, Isacsson began imagining a documentary which paid tribute to both novels by uncovering stories from today’s society that show their relevance more than fifty years after publication.

Date: May 15. 2005
Subject: Leaked NFB Memo
Sources have today uncovered a secret memo about a must-attend costume party with art installations, live bands, DJ and a political debate. Code-named “Doublethink,” the Big Brother-themed underground loft party is, in reality, an event being staged to attract potentially influential members of the city’s creative class to a location referred only as the “Triangle Institute”…

According to the memo, the event is a federal government surveillance operation, designed to capture documentary video footage and market research data from counter-culture agitators and trendsetters. These scenes are to be provoked during interrogations with attendees as they enter the venue through security check points with surveillance cameras, disguised as “interactive media art installation.”…

Those wishing to attend or protest the event must fill out an online market research survey purporting to be an invitation RSVP form…

As the idea for the feature length documentary began to germinate, Isacsson called his friend Varda Burstyn, and together they researched and created a proposal that would re-discover Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four as inspirations for acts of resistance against abuse of power.

The two books have not been gathering dust in the back rooms of old libraries. Brave New World is easily “the most often invoked text in writings critical of consumerism gone wild” with Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death as just one example. As for Orwell, the term “Big Brother” is no stranger to newspaper headlines or even informal conversation when anyone feels they are losing control of their private lives and decisions. Last year in Montreal on Radio Canada, listeners offered up to several thousand suggestions for the Most Important 100 Books for understanding our time. Nineteen Eighty-Four came in at #1, and Brave New World was #3.

It is no trouble to find parking down at the base of Mountain Street where vacant lofts sit next to artists’ studios. I wonder if the old Griffintown neighborhood is being neglected or in the first stages of gentrification. The Doublethink event is behind a non-descript door and as I climb the stairs to the third floor loft, I follow the direction of hi-tech screeching and futuristic sounds of what might be music or just very loud ambient noise. I am twice the age and half as trendy as most people there.

At the entrance I am met by a female greeter, whose enthusiasm for the task might have landed her a job at Walmart, but whose dress would have caused strokes in small towns: a concoction of aluminum foil, glitter and cellophane (wait a minute; those are NFB plastic bags!), with eye make-up reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil. A quick glance around makes me feel conspicuous in my normal street clothes: there are top hats, faces covered in white paint, army uniforms, doctor’s lab coats and one person who has covered herself in polka dots. There is a girl of about seven years old who is dancing around in a fairy princess get-up and one guy who is chewing on the strings of a violin.

“Huxley’s and Orwell’s popularity will be a debate on which of these two ‘dystopian’ visions saw the future more clearly,” says Isacsson. Rather than going to experts, cultural critics or veteran thinkers, Isacsson and Burstyn decided to throw the debate gauntlet to the next generation, where both books are still widely read. Huxley and Orwell’s popularity goes beyond the required reading list in Canadian schools: “ …they speak vividly to young readers who feel alienated from their own surroundings and who are looking for tools to help them interpret the world.”

With the help of researcher Eric Shinn, Isacsson put out a call for young debaters on e-mail, websites and flyers distributed on university campuses. He interviewed more than 50 young people— debating champions, actors, public speaking award winners, kids who are just good talkers—and came up with two teams of three who worked together to build rational arguments for each vision of the future.

“At first we were going to hold the debate in a formal setting like Massey Hall in Toronto,” explains Isacsson. “But then we decided to turn the whole evening over to young artists, counter-culture provocateurs and underground agitators who would feel a close connection to these dystopian themes.”

Shinn, 23 years old, took on the task of curating the evening, pulling in a strange brew of artists: pop/punk designers Personal Big Big Bang Bang made a giant “panopticon piñata,” while Jasa Baka, Milena Roglic and Zachary Barnett hung, painted and sewed twisted DNA and eye motifs around the set; Bronwyn Miller mounted a multi-screen installation of computer-generated propaganda poetry; biotech artists Shawn Bailey, Jennifer Willet and Anil Ragubance created a Huxley-inspired laboratory installation while Adam Zaretsky and Svetlana turned the freight elevator into a new wave-style thought police interrogation zone à la “Room 101” from Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Finally, Shinn worked with local music promotions outfit Mandatory Moustache to bring in noise bands (read NOISE bands) Flivver, Dreamcatcher, Nine Revolutions, Scream Baby Scream, Wapstan, Piss Pee and Black Market to perform throughout the evening. It seemed very much the future—and I felt very passé, wondering where inspiration for this kind of art comes from.

As I wind my way around one of the stages, I find myself approaching what seems to be a split-level laboratory. All the surfaces and walls seem florescent white, a brightness so edgy it’s almost 3-D. Hundreds of vials are stacked in plastic holders, each one holding a brightly colored liquid. Dozens of silver instruments have been carefully laid out in front of the vials. Two technicians in white lab coats are mixing more vials, counting out pink and blue pills, rearranging the instruments from one table to the next. The jerky movements of the technicians, along with the bright colored vials and white background, gives a feeling of entering a science-fiction cartoon.

Unsuspecting guests are invited to sit at a table and respond to a series of True/False statements: Progress is lovely, History is bunk, No Social Stability Without Individual Stability, A Physical Shortcoming Can Produce a Kind of Mental Excess. At the end of the test, the “Doctor” reviews the responses and prescribes a blue or pink pill. The patient swallows the prescription without protest and the next patient takes a seat.

“The film will explore stories and current events which reflect some of the nightmares of these two authors,” explains Isacsson. One of the most haunting aspects of Brave New World was genetic engineering to manufacture separate classes of people adapted to different tasks in society. A few years into the third millennium, the media is filled with stories of cloning and new techniques to manufacture ‘designer babies’ and modify the genetic make-up of humans. Huxleyan trends are, of course, prominent in consumerism
and marketing:

American doctors working out of private clinics and universities have developed a new “neuromarketing” technique, using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), which can directly intervene into the neuronal activity of the brain, potentially changing the desires, opinions and actions of consumers. Scientists working with these techniques are coordinating their efforts with corporations and their advertising departments.

Another room is outfitted with surveillance cameras and guests are invited to come inside the “Obedience Room”. Each person must first read a short statement, Admission of Guilt, then rate five tortures from most to least favorite: Isolation and Sensory Deprivation, Multiple Yelling Interrogators, Forced Nudity, etc. Two quasi- military, quasi-medical actors chant through a hypnotic performance in which participants are reminded to “Focus, focus, completely UN-focus.” More deprogramming poetry surrounds each guest—“Don’t think, don’t think…You’re free to go”—and I find myself rooted to one spot, wondering what to do. Before I decide to leave, I am ushered out and the next group is ushered in.

Orwell’s vision of surveillance and spying in Nineteen Eighty-Four as a tool to keep the citizenry controlled and passive also has its modern day variations.

Trina Magi, an otherwise mild- mannered librarian from Vermont, is campaigning for repeal of the snooping provisions of the Patriot Act in the U.S. The State at the moment has to right to search all library records and keep the search secret. Magi has mobilized other Library Boards and City Councils in New England to vote to amend the Act or abolish altogether.

When Steve Kurtz’s wife died of cardiac arrest in Buffalo, NY last year, he did what anyone would do: he called 9-1-1. The police arrived, mistook his art supplies for bio- terrorism weapons, called the FBI and Kurtz was arrested and illegally detained. Without much evidence to maintain the bio-terrorism charge, Kurtz is now being taken to court for mail fraud.

The music is lowered and the two debate teams, The All-Seeing Eyes (Orwell) and the Alpha ++ (Huxley), take their positions. The debate is moderated by Quadraceptor, a beatboxing spoken word artist who takes us deep into the debate and far away from Massey Hall. Arguments are flung back and forth, reminding me of my own youth when large concepts and deep meanings were all that mattered. The debaters leave no stone unturned: drugs, Iraq, consumerism, war, advertising, movies, technology, rules and regulations, banking, crimes and prison… Each aspect is thrown up for Orwellian or Huxleyan review.

“In the end, the film will take a position similar to that of Margaret Atwood or Philip K. Dick who is a key link between the dystopian writing and the world of cinema (films like Bladerunner and Minority Report were based on his stories). Along with many other sci-fi writers they see both visions as having relevance and validity for our times,” explains Isacsson.

Doublethink promises to make you “think twice” about the world around you by looking through the Huxley and Orwell periscopes. In fact, you are required to think. Non-compliance will result in either prison or medication. For the moment, it’s your choice.

Editor’s Note: Since the Doublethink party, Isacsson has continued to work with NFB producer Adam Symansky on raising funds for the film. Recently, Arnie Gelbart of Galafilm has come forward as a co-producer. Gelbart comments “This is an original idea and a creatively strong project, in addition to being very timely in terms of subject matter, I am pleased that Adam and Magnus came to me with it.” He has already approached European producers to come on board the project.

Isacsson, who pronounces himself pleased with the co-production arrangement, has settled on a crew, with Stefan Nitoslavsky as cinematographer, Diane Carrière on sound, and Simon Bujold as half-time assistant camera and half-time production manager. “I am also constantly finding new material. Unfortunately, there’s no lack of Doublethink, Doublespeak and rewriting of history these days, nor people found guilty of ‘thought crimes’,” comments Isacsson.

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