Reviews

Ever Since the World Ended (2001)

These days, you can pick your apocalyptic poison from an almost endless menu.


Ever Since the World Ended

Display Artist: Joshua Atesh Litle, Calum Grant
Director: Calum Grant
Cast: Adam Savage, David Driver, Mark Ruthier, Angie Theriot
Studio: Shoreline
Distributor: Bfs
MPAA rating: N/A
First date: 2001
US DVD Release Date: 2007-07-10

Robert Frost famously wrote, "Some say the world will end in fire / Some say in ice". That was in 1920, and it's safe to say that those limited options seem almost quaint today. These days, you can pick your apocalyptic poison from an almost endless menu.

The "zombie"-infested 28 Days / Weeks / Months Later franchise ditched the cosmic radiation of the Night of the Living Dead series in favor of a good old-fashioned human-engineered virus. I Am Legend sets a lone survivor against infected masses that, for all practical purposes, are vampires. Children of Men envisions civilization as a flame guttering out because the human race has become infertile. The Jericho TV series documents a town's fight for survival after a nuclear attack.

Apocalypse is all the rage in this age of bird flu scares, global warming debates, wars, and saber-rattling political standoffs. Heck, the baby-eating cannibals of Cormac McCarthy's The Road even got their ashy fingers all over Oprah's Book Club.

Probably the most important variable, with so many choices available, is the individual viewer's / reader's level of misanthropy. How pessimistic are we about humanity's chances? How long do we think the center would hold as the water and food and hope run out? How far do we want to see humanity fall? Do we want to see ourselves descend into chaos, or band together for the common good of community and survival?

The faux documentary Ever Since the World Ended falls into the latter camp, depicting a world where a plague has wiped out most of the world's population. San Francisco contains approximately 186 survivors, two of whom decide to make a documentary recording the thoughts of their fellow inhabitants. The survivors, it turns out, get by surprisingly well; constructing their own power sources from backup generators, solar panels, and car batteries that fill the city, and benefitting from the area's gravity-fed water system (all via some engineering expertise courtesy of Adam, played by Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame).

Twelve years after the plague, these fortunate few have apparently gotten past the initial struggle for survival, and now find time for esoteric pursuits like creating art. Classes are even held to teach the children what little bit of knowledge remains.

Not everyone gets into the communal spirit, though. One survivor concerns himself with scavenging for three high-demand items -- liquor, prescription drugs, and cigarettes -- in order to profit. A couple of slackers simply exist on the fringes, following packs of dogs to places where they can find food, and generally enjoying themselves. Others just want to be left alone on the outskirts of the city, or in the woods.

The film follows several storylines. Along with the survivor interviews, the film crew also follows a group of hikers who leave the city to explore the wilderness for a few days. Both groups encounter crises that bring them face-to-face with the harsh realities of their situations. Back in the city, folks must contend with the return of Mark, whom they'd exiled from the city for setting at least a dozen fires and damaging food supplies after the collapse. In a private meeting, a handful of them openly discuss the merits of imprisonment versus exile versus execution. The hikers must decide what to do with an injured comrade after it becomes obvious he won't survive the trip home. In a world where life is literally a precious and rare commodity, such decisions hold enormous implications.

Equally interesting, though, is the film's treatment of the divide between the adults, who remember life before the plague, and the children, who don't. Early on, we see teenagers breaking into apartments and houses, scavenging for anything useful and not even giving a second look to the mummified bodies they find. The teenagers are less than sympathetic to the adults, seeing weakness in memories and fondness for the past. For their parts, the adults alternately worry about the kids and feel hope in them, wondering if their children's status as natives of this new world hinders them or gives them advantages. Adam, for example, hopes that his kids and everyone else will eventually migrate from town in favor of a more agrarian existence. He worries that extended life in the city, with its water and electricity, will make everyone soft.

The city's denizens do seem to exist in an unlikely bubble, without even a coherent idea of what people outside the city are like. One character claims that they're crazy freaks, while another insists that outsiders are basically good and friendly. This is one area of several where the film asks you to suspend your disbelief. These people live in a city full of resources, one which would be a magnet for any nearby survivors; it's hard to believe that the residents don't have an idea of what exists outside their own borders.

That myopia, and that sense of stasis, is perhaps the most frustrating thing about the inhabitants of Ever Since the World Ended. Perhaps it's a natural byproduct of the film's documentary slant; in its attempt to record a moment in time, it doesn't really lend itself to a dramatic narrative arc. Or perhaps it's just a subjective response; watching the film, you can't help but ponder how you might do things differently if put in the same situation. Still, there's not much sense that these people are moving toward anything.

Overall, though, the film succeeds. The acting is, with only a few exceptions, excellent. The faux documentary format doesn't lend itself to much visual lyricism, but there are some beautiful shots of things like rusting ships, a tattered Golden gate bridge, and what look to be prehistoric cave paintings -- only they're in a manmade tunnel (a nifty idea in and of itself, and one that hints at the larger state of the world). And the film does do a nice job of exploring some of the larger issues that might become important to the vestiges of humanity once the trauma has subsided.

As far as bonus features go, the DVD travels light, containing a trailer and some deleted scenes. For the most part, the deleted scenes are good, but in a couple of cases, you can see why they were cut out, as they made some of the film's themes too explicit.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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