The Age of Stupid

By Gareth Evans

franny-armstrong.jpgFranny Armstrong

The huge implications of climate change are given dynamic form in Franny Armstrong’s essential new feature

Following on from her remarkable campaigning documentaries McLibel and Drowned Out, film-maker Franny Armstrong has spent the last few years making her most important film yet. The Age of Stupid is a docu-drama about climate change, ecological collapse and the end of human civilisation. Starring Pete Postlethwaite and produced by John Battsek (One Day in September) via a participatory funding structure and with a huge cadre of supporters and volunteers, it seeks to transform cinematic representation of the greatest threat facing human society.

As George Monbiot has observed, the film “promises to make a big impact. It follows the lives of six people - from the head of a new Indian airline to a Nigerian fisherwoman who has to use Omo to scrub the oil off her catch - caught up in the politics of climate breakdown. It is a captivating and constantly surprising film: the first successful dramatisation of climate change to reach the big screen.”

Armstrong and her team are extraordinarily dedicated image activists, taking their crucial films to huge numbers of people with an energy and determination that is hard to match. For The Age of Stupid, they are developing educational and outreach strategies on a scale as yet unseen.

Vertigo: What prompted you to make The Age of Stupid?

Franny Armstrong: Either we seriously tackle climate change or we wipe out most life on Earth. So it's not a tricky decision, as a filmmaker, to decide which subject to work on. I find it hard to understand how anyone who grasps the problem can work on anything else.

V: What are the strengths of film as a medium for portraying large, complex issues like climate change?

FA: I think independent documentaries are currently the number one way to pack the biggest emotional punch while disseminating ideas to the most number of people with the least number of editorial restrictions. Because it is a mixed-media format - ie spoken words, images, music, graphics - the size of the emotional punch it packs can be so much bigger than single-media formats like books, songs, photographs or newspaper articles. Plus, the 90-odd minute length has been shown by the history of cinema to be the perfect slot for people to follow and feel a story.

V: How can people possibly be expected to navigate their way through the complexities and ironies of climate change? And why should they have to?

FA: Because the future of our species and everything we have ever achieved is at stake.

V: How did you choose the six subjects of the film?

FA: The original plan, back in 2002, was to steal the structure of Stephen Soderbergh's movie Traffic: six human stories on all sides of a complex international issue. His was fiction and drugs and ours was going to be documentary and oil / climate change. That's exactly what we did for the first two years. We had a pretty much finished film about a year ago, but when I sat back and watched it, I just didn't think it was good enough. So we decided to introduce the fictional element - set in the future - to amplify and explain the significance of our six human stories set in the present day.

franny-armstrong-2.jpgFranny Armstrong

I divided the film up into six main themes: consumption, war, climate change, alternatives etc. Then we had a team of researchers exploring all the possibilities within those themes until, over several months, we narrowed it down to a particular country and a particular story: eg a low-cost airline starting up in India. Or a French mountain guide who is old and has grand-children. Then we bought two tickets and set off to find the real person. Each of the characters were a thousand times more interesting and nuanced than I could ever have imagined. Which reinforced my belief in both documentaries and humans.

V: Are there any significant angles which you feel have been left out?

FA: The two angles I would have liked to include are the top-level political manoeuvres which prevent real action on climate change and the behind-the-scenes shenanigans at a major multinational oil corporation. But clearly we didn't have a hope in hell of getting decent access to anyone like that, so we had to weave them in through the animations and archive.

V: What were the biggest challenges you encountered in making the film?

FA: It was non-stop challenges every day, for three and a half years. How to raise £450,000, how not to get kidnapped in Nigeria, how to switch the new camera on, how to minimise our carbon footprint, how to write drama, how to contact Pete Postlethwaite, how to encode OMFIs, how to rock-climb, how to pay for 17 animators. But there's nothing like continual challenges, towards a worthwhile goal, surrounded by inspiring people, to really feel alive.

V: What moment from your experience of making the film is strongest in your memory?

FA: One of the most memorable moments was actually four hours long. We were waiting for a 15-year-old Iraqi boy to cross the border into Jordan. He was supposed to take two hours to travel from Baghdad, along the most dangerous road in the world. He went out of mobile phone coverage, as expected, but then ended up taking six hours instead of two. We found out later that it was because he got stuck behind an American tank convoy (apparently if you overtake, you get shot). During those extra four hours, when I concluded that someone had died because of my film, I did a lot of re-evaluating.

franny-armstrong-3.jpgFranny Armstrong

V: What kind of impact do you hope your film will make?

FA: We want to be part of the sea change in awareness, which leads to the greatest ever public uprising, which in turn forces the world's governments to make a binding international agreement to cut global emissions so as to stabilise global temperatures below two degrees and keep the planet habitable for humans and other species.

V: If you want people to take one thing away from watching the film, what would it be?

FA: The question “what are we leaving our children?” has become slightly meaningless and empty from overuse. I hope that everyone watching our film not only understands – but also deeply feels – what it means.

V: Do you believe that we can turn things around in the estimated 100 months that we supposedly have left before we pass the tipping point for runaway climate change? If so, what needs to happen? Surely, it is only governments that can make the necessary decisions?

FA: When we were working on McLibel (the film, the website and the courtcase) we never for a moment thought we would have any actual influence on McDonald's. We just did it as a point of principal and because it was a story worth telling. So then, ten years later, when their profits collapsed, there was a sea-change in public awareness about healthy eating and the laws about advertising junk food to kids were changed, we were flabbergasted. So immovable mountains can be moved.

V: How did you calculate the carbon footprint of the film and what was it? Are you offsetting it?

FA: We just kept notes of the distance and type of every journey (by foot, bicycle, motor boat, rowing boat, plane, train, car, tuk tuk and helicopter), as well as all the electricity, gas, food etc we used and all the equipment we bought. Then we got a volunteer to research and add them all up. It added up to 94 tonnes - equivalent to four Americans for a year or 185 patio heaters for a month. I definitely think our film is worth 185 patio heaters for a month. No, we're not offsetting it, that is self-deluding nonsense.

V: What advice do you have for anyone thinking of picking up a camera for the first time to make their own film (especially on environmental themes)?

FA: When I started making my first film, McLibel, all the TV commissioners told me it wasn't a strong enough story. Although they had decades of experience in the TV industry, and I had none, I thought I was right and they wrong. Which turned out to be the case. So, I'd say, don't let anyone tell you what to think. And always have an afternoon nap.

The Age of Stupid is released in the UK on 20th March 2009 and on dvd globally in the summer. Visit

Thanks to Franny Armstrong and Lizzie Gillett.