In a year of lively and inspiring political documentaries, the Swedish Surplus is a major disappointment. Perhaps it’s unfair to even label Surplus a documentary. Erik Gandini seems to have been aiming for a cinematic tone poem in the style of Koyaanisqatsi. Yet, even on that count, Surplus fails.According to the press notes, Gandini and photographers Carl Nilsson and Lukas Eisenhauer embarked on “an intense visual odyssey filmed for over three years in eight different countries”. For all their efforts, this 50-minute film boasts few memorable images or startling juxtapositions.
The ideological rationale for Surplus is compelling. Rampant consumerism is “out of control” in a world characterised by inequitable distribution. Passive shoppers are “terrorised” into spending for spending’s sake, driven by advertising – the relentless propaganda of a consumerist society. The ideas of author John Zerzan propel the film. He goes so far as to advocate property damage as an alternative to mindless consumerism. According to Zerzan, destroying property is not violent. “Sitting there doing dope and watching MTV. Then you go and get a job. Just schlep along. To me that is violence.”
What’s most frustrating about Surplus is that it doesn’t pursue any of the ideas it explores, but merely presents them in out-of-context sound bites. I can see that a life consisting of shopping and routine work and passive slumping in front of the box is not satisfying, but how is it violent? Gandini and editor Johan Söderberg cut together phrases against repetitive images and mix them to a dance beat. George W. Bush and Tony Blair rap the words of an unseen environmentalist like ventriloquist’s dummies.
Gandini’s so drunk on his own irony that he sells short the ideas in his film. Zerzan’s arguments are the closest that Surplus comes to a thesis, but Gandini undercuts them visually. When Zerzan calls for a return to primitivism, Gandini shows us a phony looking stone-age ape-man actor and draws a cheap laugh instead.If watching MTV is unsatisfying and the epitome of a soulless consumerist society, why did Gandini make a film with all the entertainment and information value of a 50-minute Kraftwerk music video?
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Sydney Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Sydney Film Festival series, click here.
This film is listed in our political documentary series. For more in the Political Documentary series, click here.