I’ve been thinking a lot about passion lately. Not the amorous kind, but the fire-in-your-belly, intense enthusiasm for intellectual pursuit kind. I realized the people I most admire are the ones who are passionate about something, whether it is feminism, cycling, animal rights, environmentalism, fighting for social justice, etc. The opposite of passion is apathy, and according to the film ReGENERATION, apathy is something that plagues youth culture these days. Throw in an unhealthy dose of cynicism and despair, and society faces a major problem.
I recently had the opportunity to watch ReGENERATION, a documentary that examines some of the issues afflicting youth that “perpetuate our culture’s apathetic approach to social and political causes.” I was also able to chat with the film’s director, Philip Montgomery, about empathy, action and learning to think critically.
The film, which is narrated by Canadian actor Ryan Gosling, tackles difficult subject matter, exploring some of the issues that perpetuate cynicism and apathy in youth culture, such as a disconnection to history and nature, severe economic factors and the failure of the education system. Often these factors are systematic in nature, designed to keep us subdued. ReGENERATION looks at the effects of media, education, lackadaisical parenting, technology and consumerism as some of the prevalent reasons why youth culture may feel disengaged, isolated and fragmented. The film features high school students, teachers and young parents telling their stories and personal reflections as leading scholars and social activists such as Amy Goodman, the late Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, media personalities including Fox News’ Tucker Carlson as well as musicians Sound Tribe Sector 9 and Talib Kweli ruminate on some of the challenges the “narcissistic, me-generation” faces today.
How you reach a generation of young people who are lulled by technology, weighed down and almost numbed by the constant barrage of information is a weighty conundrum discussed throughout the film. The question of how you turn cynicism and indifference into compassion, empathy and action is not an easy one to answer, unfortunately.
To start, you have to decide on what moves you, what makes you passionate, what kind of social injustices and oppressions you want to fight. The film is a call for action but it does not explicitly lay out precise steps or a detailed plan. That’s the way the filmmakers planned it. Montgomery says one of the biggest criticisms of ReGENERATION is that it does not necessarily pinpoint one specific thing to fight or how to go about doing it. Says Montgomery, “People say the film should point me in the right direction. Well, why should my film point you in the right direction? It’s up to you to find your cause rather than for me to spoon-feed you your path…Part of cynicism and apathy is we do expect to be spoon-fed. ”
The goal of the film is to create dialogue and call upon others to learn to think critically. In order to do that, the first step is to discover what your own passions and causes are. Montgomery invites those interested to check out the film’s website to see some of the independent organizations and literature that influenced the film as a solid starting point.
Montgomery adds, “If I do leave with one word of advice, it’s to look at your own consumerism…you have the most powerful form of activism. Vote with your dollar. As a consumer, what you support or don’t support will shape the future of the country.”
Our chat turns to the idea of courage and learning to stand up for what you believe in, especially if you don’t receive support from your community. To swim against the current requires a certain amount of bravery, but as Montgomery points out, when you start speaking up, you eventually find people will gravitate to you. “You may lose friends, but you also meet some of the greatest people you will know.”
Empathy goes hand-in-hand with courage, and I ask Montgomery whether empathy can be taught. After a brief pause, he gives a resolute yes. “[Empathy is when you] find a sense of where [the other] might be coming from. [It begins when you] find some common ground.” Montgomery suggests numerous ways of learning empathy from travelling the world, to reading a book to visiting a local indigenous native community in order to gain a different perspective. It is through empathy that you are able to think critically and not just view institutions at face value, Montgomery stresses.
Even though parts of ReGENERATION were depressing, it was not a film without hope. It brings up interesting questions and hypotheses, but I wonder whether the main problem is despair rather than apathy. Historian and writer Angus Johnston has this to say about student apathy:
“A lot of what’s taken for apathy is actually, I think, despair. It’s a nagging, grinding, chronic despair that leads a person to think that what’s wrong will always be wrong and that they can’t play any part in changing it. It’s not apathy, because apathy would mean that they didn’t care. [Students] do care, often, but they’re resigned to things the way they are because they think they’re powerless.”
Battling despair is different than battling apathy, and while both are monumental tasks, it is much easier to convince people they have the power to change than to try and make people give a damn. I think underneath it all, a core idealism about creating a better society still exists. It’s human nature to want to improve, but it’s also a matter of cutting through all the crap out there. Statistics suggest that students’ social conscience is declining or simply not there, but the problem is much more complicated than merely examining numbers. Because of information overload and media-oversaturation, our attentions are divided. As a result, there is no longer a singular cause to fight against, and sometimes when we feel overwhelmed, that feeling of despair sets in and we simply give up.
In the 60s, youth culture rallied against the Vietnam war, but nowadays we have more than our pick to choose from: facing two wars, terrorism, economic uncertainty, globalisation, immigration, environmental pollution and more, it’s no wonder people find it easier to tune out than to tune in and risk being overwhelmed. One crucial way to keep grounded is solidarity-building. When you find a supportive community and connect with others, you learn from them and share information. Relating with people and building relationships is one of the most powerful tools in activism, whether it’s battling apathy or despair. Not to mention it is a great way to connect with other passionate peope.
ReGENERATION is one of the highly-anticipated feature films that will be screening at this year’s TIFF Sprockets Film Festival for Children and Youth. The film won the Youth Jury Award and Best Futurewave Feature at the Seattle International Film Festival 2010. The festival runs from April 5-17, 2011 in Toronto. ReGENERATION is scheduled for theatrical release in fall of 2011.