Surplus: Terrorized Into Being Consumers DVD Review

Swedish filmmaker Erik Gandini’s cautionary documentary Surplus warns against ongoing destruction of the earth, dangerous depletion of energy and other natural resources, underdevelopment, poverty, death and uncertainty. And no, he’s not talking about war, but rather consumerism. A global doomsday satire set to music by composer Johan Soderberg, Surplus: Terrorized Into Being Consumers is effective in probing everything that’s wrong with the world, but doesn’t fare as well when it comes to constructively addressing potential solutions.

With a kind of naive when not aimless ‘just say no’ perspective, the documentary advocates simply destroying everything – or at least a few McDonalds here and there – and starting all over again. Which ironically hardly differs from what’s going on right now with the planet’s consumer based environmental destruction in slow motion. As opposed to a fast forward extinction fantasy and back to nature primitivism, but without a game plan in sight.

Setting aside its frustrating lack of any practical strategy, Surplus does manage to be alternately entertaining and disturbing. Controversial anarchist philosopher John Zerzan rails against consumerist propaganda and its misleading notions of freedom of choice, which amount to nothing more than a coercive selection among brands of products. This, while advocating destruction of everything as a cure, a rather odd prescription for a promoter of preservation globally.

And in an examination of consumerism’s pathological extremes, Gandini visits a sex doll factory, where the manufacturer boasts about his line of sex toy mannequins featuring every imitation human size, shape and color imaginable. Which when juxtaposed with dehumanizing images of scantily clad females as actual living consumer props at an auto trade show display, the point is more than dishearteningly made. Also up for a cinematic lashing are digital gadgets from computers to palm pilots, those ‘electronic leashes’ alienating humans from an authentic sense of community.

In contrast, the film presents the example of Cuba, with its anti-commercial policy of ‘consuming only the necessary.’ And where it’s explained to the puzzled filmmaker at a distribution center that tubes of toothpaste require no labels because ‘we know what they are.’ At the same time, Gandini interviews a young Cuban woman who complains about the lack of food variety, unlike a European supermarket she explored while visiting friends there. Yet he never inquires why she returned to Cuba and seems happy there, nor how the US blockade for over half a century is responsible for impoverishing the country.

Further confusing the acquisition of material possessions with the consumption of ideas, Gandini interviews dejected affluent European youth who complain about the emptiness of their lives. Which seem to in large part revolve around figuring out not how to acquire but rather get rid of their money, by constant unnecessary purchases. In the end, they retreat to the woods for a little incidental cookout hobo style, as a kind of combo spiritual and material liberation, even if fleeting. And whose welcome spartan menu ironically, seems rather like the one the Cuban woman previously on camera, complained about.

It’s unfortunate that Surplus: Terrorized Into Being Consumers candidly exposes the issues, but has no clear direction in mind, espousing the violent anarchistic erasure of society as we know it in a sort of temper tantrum politics. And blaming workers as much as corporations, simply for surviving as best they can in an imperfect world. Which is a little like indicting the minimum wage drudges at McDonalds for the junk food menu.

Atmo Media Network


2 stars

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Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.