“We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs.” Kenneth Clark
All civilisations rise and fall. For 300 years, the Judeo-Christian West has been the world’s pre-eminent civilisation. So, where is the West on the timeline? Many have theorised about the fall of western civilisation but now we appear to have the evidence.
Low birth rates, ageing populations, debt-laden economies and immigration – the West consumes without consequence, loves without longevity and lives without meaning. Peak oil, climate change, the GFC is the world without.Decadence, a lush essay-style documentary filmed in ten countries, is about the world within, about us. About what we have gained and lost. About a new renaissance or a final dark age?
DECADENCE – The idea
I had been filming the A Fork in the Road travel documentary series on and off since 1992. Many countries, different peoples, at home, work and play. Following the African series in 2002 and particularly after the Mali shoot in Dogon country and Djenne, it felt I had left dystopia and returned to, relatively speaking, utopia. From villages that had yet to grapple with basic civic necessities like street rubbish collection to prim suburbia with the pressing issue of when to mow the lawn and paying bills on the phone. This was a chasm of civilisation that was not narrowing thanks to some notional global village or the wonders of the Internet but widening, exponentially. Why? Simply because the western world is hurtling forwards. Which made me think - what do we take for granted, what are we losing in this rush to fulfil a well-lived life? Which heat shields are burning off as we here in the West, race ever faster with technology and without old social limits, towards success and happiness? Whatever that is.
And so, one evening in April 2002, standing in that trusted ideas factory, the shower, the word Decadence popped into my head. And within a moment, the four subtitles – Money, Democracy, Family & God. Now, that’s a big-picture series I thought. A series that would have commissioning editors at the broadcasters fighting over it. Well, not quite. Two and a half years later, we got the 6-part series up (adding episodes on Sex and Education). It eventually aired across Australia in 2007 and topped every night it was broadcast – with scant publicity. So, that proved there was an audience for it in Australia. In 2008, I ventured that this audience would also be found in the rest of the West. And so began the long road to raise funding to make a feature documentary that covered all those topics in one grand sweep. There were naysayers, spivs and closed doors aplenty. It’s taken us four years to do it but now it’s complete and will hit the big screen first in Australia.
What is DECADENCE about?
While Decadence deals head-on with the decline of many of the fundamental institutions of the West, at heart, this film is an ode to the West.
In the 70s, I was fortunate enough to have been sent from an Asian country to be educated in the West - the UK and Australia. I have now lived and worked in the West for most of my life. Filming and family ties have meant regular contact with many of the countries of Asia where all things economic are booming. While their double-digit economic growth is now increasingly impossible thanks to gross income disparity, political and religious volatility, peak oil and climate change, they are economically optimistic and maintain strong family and spiritual values. The West continues down the road burdened by lifelong debts, low birth rates, ageing lonely populations, dry secularism and without any sense of meaning beyond the latest iPad.
And yet, the western world has been the pre-eminent civilisation. Education, law, individuality, tolerance, liberalism, freedom are western words that are yet to be understood by the rest – if they ever will. Life in the West was as good as it gets. This documentary seeks only to raise a flag. It offers no solutions because there are no simple answers. But it does ask the question about whether the West realises what it is losing? And from that, perhaps, more questions will be asked before some answers come forth that may just point towards a new renaissance rather than a final dark age.
In essence, DECADENCE is an ambient piece.
It is not the usual singularly focused documentary. It even sits uncomfortably in the documentary genre. It is not made for art house conceit or esoteric film festivals and yet, it is made for an engaged thinking audience. It is dense but accessible. It breaks a cardinal rule of programme making by assuming audience knowledge. As such, there are sweeping statements and visual metaphors aplenty.
DECADENCE will be some things to many people. It attempts to cover big and very diverse topics in one feature. (Try pairing lethal hypocrisy in Baghdad to infidelity in autumnal New England). It does this by stepping deftly through the issues – issues that are well known to us – money, the cost of education, relationships, politics, religion. We have all talked about them at dinner tables, on the sidelines at school sports, at work. They are certainly not new but they have not been seen together in one overarching documentary essay.
There is a range of academic/expert interviews but these are embedded within a variety of ‘ordinary’ people who are really examples of all of us. There are minimal statistical and graphical illustrations because, again, these issues are self-evident and don’t need a library of stats to labour the point. Besides, you can find stats to prove anything including the opposite argument and who wants to watch something that is so finely balanced that it offers no opinion. If you get an opportunity to take the stage, well, say something worthwhile or get off.
Finally, the documentary is presented in four seasonal chapters as a simple chronological metaphor reflecting the rise of the West from the dark ages to democracy (winter), through the birth of credit and capitalism (spring), the peak of education and culture (summer) to changing social values (autumn).
- Pria Viswalingam
Born in Malaysia, Pria was educated in Asia, the UK and Australia. 20 years in Australian broadcasting have seen him produce, write and present a wide range of television programmes. From social documentaries to business and travel series, Pria has filmed in more than 60 countries and regions.
Xanon Murphy - Line Producer
Xanon Murphy has had a varied experience working in Film, Television, Events and Theatre. Previously he has worked for Fork Films as the Production Manager/Line Producer .
He is also the resident Producer for Republic Vision working on web & viral videos with Manic Studios as well drama projects with Grace Films.
"Decadence was enthusiastically received by a full house on the Sunday Night Screening of BBFF’s Opening Weekend. The film sparked off some passionate questions for the Q&A held immediately after and the Discussion Panel held the following day with Decadence’s Director and Producer was a highlight of the festival. Decadence was the runner up for our $5000 Byron International Documentary Prize earning an Honorable Mention from the judges."
- J’aimee Skippon-Volke Byron Bay Film Festival’s Director
“…see this film.” 3 ½ stars
Evan Williams The Australian
“…made with passion and conviction, and succeeds…” 3 1/2 stars
Evan Williams The Australian
Sydney Morning Herald 4 stars
“The ideas may be weighty but Viswalingam has enough experience and charm to ensure the treatment is engaging”...
“ ‘Is this as Good as it Gets?’ It’s a question every Westerner should be asking”4 STARS
“Decadence is a stimulating filmic essay on contemporary cultural questions of greatest importance. Pria Viswalingam deserves our thanks and congratulations.”
Professor Robert Manne
"In Decadence: Decline of the Western World, Australian journalist and
television presenter Pria Viswalingam does an excellent job at
identifying the symptoms of Western decline ...”
"This movie is important".
“This documentary isn't only applicable to intellectuals and left-wing evangelists; it's insightful viewing for anyone who lives in the West”.
"An intelligent yet accessible doco which thoughtfully and
compellingly delves into the impact of capitalism on modern life”.
"…the film is personal, eccentric, idiosyncratic and engrossed in its
project in a way that’s quite powerful”.
“…the ultimate effect is optimistic…”
“.. he asks, “Is this as good as it gets?” It’s a question every Westerner should be asking”.
"In Decadence: Decline of the Western World, Australian journalist and
television presenter Pria Viswalingam does an excellent job at identifying
the symptoms of Western decline" .... "This movie is important"
"Viswalingam ....flits engagingly from hither to yon to present compelling
evidence of the decay and imminent collapse of western society."
Reviews & Articles
Sydney Morning Herald - 4/5 stars
The Australian - 3.5/5 stars
ABC Radio National:
More from SMH:
A Fresh Angle:
Inst of Public Affairs (a right wing think tank):
“this is all about a subject upon which everyone should have an opinion”; Op-Ed: Society? There’s a society? 60s living vs. 2011- no contest:
A Filmmakers Journey:
Decadence: Decline Of The Western World:
So, spread the word - Decadence - it's dense, provocative and great dinner debate material!
November 2012: Decadence: winner of Docufest Atlanta Best Foreign Documentary Feature - http://eepurl.com/qXOG1
August 2012: Decadence is Now Available on DVD and via iTunes - http://eepurl.com/okyHn
July 2012: Decadence DVD Orders and our Dorrigo Screening - http://eepurl.com/nO-ff
April 2012: You're invited to our Q&A at Event Cinemas & Greater Union - http://eepurl.com/kMB8j
March 2012: Byron Bay Film Festival this Friday - http://eepurl.com/jCMzX
January 2012: Sydney Season Almost Over: http://eepurl.com/iiU0E
December 2011: Decadence: Eligible for the IF Awards: http://eepurl.com/hMmK2
So, what are the facts? The populations of the industrialised western world are breeding out. The UN says that to renew a population, women's fertility rates have to be 2.0 and above. Here are some figures from the CIA’s Fertility Rate list (children per woman) Notice how the richest countries with the most desirable lifestyles have the lowest birthrates:-
1. Niger 7.60
13. Afghanistan 5.39
123. USA 2.06
133. France 1.96
139. UK 1.91
157. Australia 1.78
160. Norway 1.77
171. Sweden 1.67
178. Canada 1.58
186. Monaco 1.50
188. Spain 1.47
190. Switzerland 1.46
198. Germany 1.41
202. Italy 1.39
221. Japan 1.21
The Western world is literally diminishing in numbers and influence.
A social movement to change, to reclaim, to renew. Renaissance II?
1. the film provides us with the vocabulary to discuss where we are going
2. the success of the film will not be in the watching but what happens in the months and years after it is watched
3. the release of the film is not the end of the journey but the start of the next stage.
The film is the start of a reformation. If the system we are operating under is not producing outcomes we want or expect is it not time that we reformed the system? Don’t opt out by seachanging or treechanging, change the main game .. our societies.
Comments have already been made about the film’s lack of answers. Well, that’s right because there are no easy solutions to a declining civilisation! At heart, the film is an ode to what the West was and can still do. So, indeed, the film has an answer. Many of us already know the answer but can’t express it or don’t feel it is appropriate to express it. To wit - Occupy Sydney, Melbourne.
Many of us feel powerless to do anything. We need to ask ourselves whether that is yet another outcome of the system? Why do I feel powerless and is that how the system should operate? A system that the rest of the world is following?
What do we want?
Today, we hear so much from so few. The country that pulls the global levers has only 300m of the 7 billion people on this planet. Of those 300m, 90% of the wealth is controlled by 2% of the population. The top tier of that 2% arrives on their private jets to Davos every year to proclaim how the rest of us should live. By pursuing lives measured by material success in societies marked by never ending growth in a world that can’t sustain it all. Something’s got to change.
We’re aiming to hold a “Social Davos”.
Our system says that those with money are successful and we should listen to them… well, that’s correct if the getting of money is the end goal. Is that really what we all want? Still? We all know it is not. We know that some of the happiest communities on the planet are not wealthy. And we know that most of the wealthiest are the unhappiest. If we know this why do we have a system that continues to focus on a financial outcome?
It is because our lives now are driven by profit and loss. And thus, we try to price everything. We value the measurable and discount the invaluable. We have forced our best and brightest from public service and academia to the mega salary troughs of the business world. And thus, we all now live under that regimen of self-interest – mundane, hollow and lonely as it is.
Our way of life today is testament to a triumph of the merchant. Things we once held dear like family, friendship, communities, stories, traditions, religion are now cast adrift.
We know that the lifestyle the western system aspires to, is not sustainable as it is. We know that as other countries follow the western model we will need ‘seven earths’ of resources. Why do we keep holding onto our endless growth-driven system when we know we all can’t afford to operate as we have? It is the obvious fast track to our own self destruction.
The West needs to reform. If we don’t reform ourselves while others follow us, then we all race into an abyss together. An abyss of peak oil, depleted resources, a wrecked climate and meaningless lives.
As the world’s pre-eminent civilisation, the West needs to lead and lead well again. The West needs a new renaissance. A social revolution that revalues all that was good about the West. We need a new definition of western best practice which will be tabled in the hope that the purveyors of the new century, the owners of the future, those re-emerging giants of the East, may have a read.
A good social revolution. A global social movement. A second renaissance beginning the day after Davos - R2 D2.
Speak now with a new voice.
Decadence Asks; A final dark age, or a new renaissance?