There is a consensus, in both utopian and film studies, that positive utopias in the tradition of Thomas Moreʼs Utopia (1516) are not suited for feature films, since they lack a central conflict and therefore a dramatic arc as well as clearly defined characters. While the classic utopia in the Morean tradition has the form of a narrative text, its main function is not to engage the reader in an exciting story, but rather to present a thought-provoking alternative to the current – miserable – state of affairs. Utopias are hybrids by nature, mixing narrative tropes with political and philosophical considerations that are part social critique and part revolutionary pamphlet.
Starting from Moreʼs Utopia, this paper argues that nonfiction films are much better suited for presenting utopias than fiction films. The main example will be Zeitgeist: Addendum (Peter Joseph, US 2008), a low budget web video that turned into a veritable online phenomenon and for a certain time spurred a whole movement.
Zeitgeist: Addendum maintains that money is the root of most of today’s problems – one of the oldest tropes of the utopian tradition – and proposes an alternative. The Venus Project, founded by industrial designer Jacque Fresco (1916–2017), promises to overcome most political and social problems thanks to the concept of a resource-based economy. By first critiquing the status quo and then presenting an alternative, Zeitgeist: Addendum follows the basic structure of the classic utopia to a remarkable degree while at the same time displaying many of its ideological problems.
Simon Spiegel is Privatdozent at the University of Bayreuth and project manager in the ERC Advanced Grant research project FilmColors at the Department of Film Studies at the University of Zurich. From 2014 to 2018 he was a collaborator in the research project Alternative Worlds. The Political-activist Documentary Film which resulted in his professorial thesis Bilder einer besseren Welt on utopias in nonfiction films (Schüren 2019, translated as Utopias in Nonfiction Film, Palgrave Macmillan 2021). His PhD thesis on the science fiction film was published in 2007 as Die Konstitution des Wunderbaren (Schüren). He is co-editor of the interdisciplinary Zeitschrift für Fantastikforschung.
Activist and idealist impulses have informed documentary history from the start. To paraphrase Thomas Waugh’s 1984 essay: Documentary filmmakers keep trying to change the world, and people changing the world keep making documentaries. Simon Spiegel’s recent work linking documentary studies with the utopian tradition in literature has focused on documentary representations of utopian visions. But to what extent may the work of documentary itself be considered a utopian practice – especially when “committed” filmmakers not only document injustice, but participate in the quest for a better world?
This paper pursues these questions through an analysis of Mira Burt-Wintonick’s essay-portrait Wintopia (CA 2019). Mira’s father, noted Canadian filmmaker and documentary film advocate Peter Wintonick (1953–2013), left behind a trove of material for a wide-ranging project on both historical and contemporary notions of utopia. Wintopia revisits this footage, and interweaves it with excerpts from Peter’s previous films and with home-movie recordings, in order to create a critical homage to a documentary activist who often neglected his family to pursue his ideals.
From the stone hermit’s hut built by the medieval Irish monk Saint Brendan, to the dilapidated fantasy landscapes of Coney Island, and the Filipino labour protesters armed with handycams to avert police violence, Wintopia follows the outline proposed by Peter’s original project in order to present documentary filmmaking practice as a sometimes quixotic personal quest for enlightenment, a means of participation in political struggle – and ultimately, as the creation of an archive that may also become a filmic afterlife.
Marcy Goldberg teaches documentary theory and cultural studies at the Lucerne University of Applied Arts, and is a doctoral candidate at the University of Zurich film studies department. She holds an M.F.A. from York University (Toronto), with a thesis on documentary film and the philosophy of the everyday. Her research areas include: Swiss film history, committed documentary, ethnographic film, feminist film history and gender studies. Together with Simon Spiegel and Andrea Reiter, she co-edited Utopia and Reality: Documentary, Activism and Imagined Worlds (University of Wales Press, 2020)
Britta Hartmann, professor of film studies and audiovisual media culture at Bonn University and one of the editors of the scholarly journal «Montage AV». She received her Ph.D. from Utrecht University in the Netherlands with a dissertation on the textual pragmatics and narratology of film beginnings and is currently doing research work as one of the principal investigators of the project Attention Strategies of Video Activism in the Social Web.