As a father of five children, I often think about the various influences that they experience growing up in a first world country in a middle-class family. The constant drive towards consumerism, the emphasis placed on possessions and privilege rather than contribution and talent. An education system obsessed with scores and regurgitation, ill-equipped to teach children in a way most suited to their individual aptitudes and natures.
I often wonder whether their values, strength of character and health would be different if they grew up in a forest, living on the land and being taught in a way that encouraged them, rather than chose irrelevant measures to shame or falsely praise them with.
The 2016 film by Matt Ross, Captain Fantastic, uses this concept as the central theme. I thought the actors in the film did a fantastic job, especially Viggo Mortensen in the lead as the idealist, socialist, father of six. My childish dig in the title of this blog is not made at the performances, but at the artificial nature of some aspects of the analysis presented by Matt Ross (writer and director).
While watching the film, there were several other films and books that immediately sprang to mind. The first one is Into the Wild, written and directed by Sean Penn, released in 2007. The references are unmistakable with the use of a bus, the sexual awakening in a trailer (American for caravan) park, and the placement of the ‘wild’ in North West America. Perhaps Sean benefited from the source material being a true story, but the theme of an ultimate failure to leave society for a better life in the wilderness seemed more appropriate for the subject matter than the seemingly trite ending of Captain Fantastic. I should also mention the brilliant sound-track for Into the Wild that features Eddie Vedder.
Another reference that springs to mind is the book by Miriam Lancewood covering her period of surviving in the South Island of New Zealand, Woman in the Wilderness. I have not read the book, but have listened to several radio interviews with Miriam. One of the things that fascinated me about Miriam’s description of her experience was the way that living in a survival mode felt so different in terms of mental load, and that living in a modern society is extremely stressful.
Real life examples of this type of survival exodus from Kevin McCloud’s Escape to the Wild were also recalled while watching Captain Fantastic. Having watched this show is probably what triggered my biggest frustration with the film. The way that hunting a deer, killing it with your hands (knife) and eating the liver raw opened the film just didn’t sit at all with the experience that Kevin McCloud conveyed in his time with families that had done this type of survivalist sea-change. My thoughts after watching Kevin’s series was that these people had opted for a hard life, were ensuring that their children could never re-enter society if they chose to, and that the risks in terms of access to medical assistance and surety of food supply were high.
Other reviewers of the film have referenced the 1986 film, The Mosquito Coast, based on the book of the same name by Paul Theroux. There is an underlying discomfort during Captain Fantastic, that maybe Ben (Viggo Mortensen) is a crazy zealot who is forcing his family to live a nightmare and that his actions eventually led to the death of his wife. So many of the historical efforts to find a utopia in the jungle have ended in the dystopian way described by Theroux.
Having weighed the pros and cons of taking children out of society, to live a nature based life, I have opted for a middle road. We live on a quarter acre, in a town of 5000 people and I commute an hour into work in the city. We have the space for chickens, fruit trees and a large vegetable garden and live only 30 minutes from a National Park. Our children go to school, but are encouraged at home to read widely and debate the fundamental ideas of our society, with no religious dogma or family political allegiances forced on them.
I still feel that we, as a race, have lost touch with our humanity when we drive to work in a car, sit in an air-conditioned cubicle and spend our days glued to screens of various sizes. Unfortunately, in the current economy, there is no way to provide food, shelter, and the means to fit in with the rest of society without working a city job. I followed with great interest the journey of athatcher85 on his YouTube channel Planting Freedom. If you want to hear the heart wrenching cry of humanity to return to a healthy existence, watch this video. What he has achieved over the past 4 years is incredible, but ultimately demands a lot of sacrifice for a family.
In summary, I enjoyed watching most of the film, but the knowledge that I came with meant that I saw much of the plot as contrived, and many of the real issues around living off-grid, were not accurately represented. I think the scenes where Ben brings his wild children to visit his sisters typical ‘white American’ family perfectly showed how unready the mainstream viewers are to tackle the real implications of the issues raised in the film.