Less a documentary than an art-infused political statement, Surplus: Terrorized Into Being Consumers, is a magnificent work of collage, mash-up, and polemic. The film focuses on numerous events and personalities from the early-2000s, as well as a plethora of disturbing and strange interviews and footage. Central to the film is its critique of consumer capitalism and corporate-led globalization. In part, the film echoes some of the best from the Frankfurt School, the Situationist International, the anti-civilization anarchist milieu, and the culture jamming subculture.
Representative of Surplus‘ critique of capitalism, the audience is treated to primitivist philosopher John Zerzan speaking—of property destruction during protests and over-consumption—to the backdrop of anti-G8 black-bloc demonstrators in Genoa, a big box store worker haplessly trying to corral shopping carts in a parking lot, and George W. Bush trying to cheer-up America following the 9-11 terrorist attacks by encouraging people to buy stuff. The movie takes a turn for the sad and unsettling by interviewing a strung-out looking designer of realistic sex dolls in his factory. He describes the objectified dimensions of the body types in a detached voice, unethusiastically use words that imply sexuality, but only pertain to consumption.
One of the best features of Surplus is its wedding of sound and image. In fact, the soundtrack merges seamlessly into the narrative, even sampling interviewees words to replay later throughout the film. A Cuban woman describes leaving her homeland and discovering all the other foodstuffs available, and practically oozes with enthusiasm. In contrast, the filmmakers melodically and repetitively sample numerous Cubans stating their typical diet: “rice and beans”. Even Castro’s speech is used to great dramatic effect in this way. (The film’s great irony—or sophistication—is that while critiquing capitalism, it does not give authoritarian socialism a free-ride, providing a dour, colorless depiction of freedom and choice under Castro.) Or, an ultra-masculine Microsoft executive (Steve Ballmer) beats his chest and screams “I love this company!” as he bounces around on a stage in front of his employees. Another great sample is the sound of coins dropping and spinning, which is sampled into a song as a Swedish millionaire entrepreneur (Svante Tidholm) describes how his prosperity has hollowed-out his life and how he longs for the cheap life again.
Perhaps the best effect is a segment that mimics a TV infomercial, set to a monologue from culture-jamming magazine Adbusters’ editor Kalle Lasn. The infomercial imagery is a perfect imitation, while Lasn’s words are lipsynced to the images of the then-heads of state of the US, UK, and Italy, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates. It is so genius and twisted, that its symbolism is second only to the recurring footage of workers in India who are employed to de-construct huge ships, piece by piece. The significance of this latter imagery—how capitalism will require incredible effort to dismantle and how a post-capitalist society will still “employ” thousands, amongst other meanings—is effective and devastating.
As a thought-provoking piece of anti-consumerist propaganda, Surplus is unequaled. Even with its unconventional presentation and design—different from most other documentaries—there is much to learn here about the radical critique of capitalism and its consequences. Were it more conventional, like The Corporation or numerous other films critical of corporations, it might lose some of its less engaged audience members; instead, Surplus grabs ahold of its audience and won’t let go, succeeding through both force of argument and style.
Topics: media, economy, work, culture