By Peter Samuelson
Feb 1, 2014
You fly in through Salt Lake City. You drive your rental car up and up and up to Park City. It's snow, Venti-sized drinks and premiere screenings day and night over the ten days of the 30th anniversary edition of the Sundance Film Festival.
You get a real sense of what Robert Redford has invented up here -- a breeder reactor that drives thousands of fans who care about films with a brain into the same ski lodges as the brains that birthed those films. It is kismet with a conscience, an accelerator for a startling new truth -- that young people have always wanted to fix what is broken in the world they are inheriting. However, these ones are actually doing so, with unprecedented power through their use of digital media.
Let me ask you a question. Seriously, please. When has it ever happened in the 8,000 years of human civilization that young people knew more about any really important subject than their parents? Than the middle aged or the elderly? Pretty much never, until right now. The digital revolution that is transforming our world is owned by our millennial young people, not by their elders. Everyone born since 1985 has grown up as a digital native, completely fluent in all its unprecedented aspects. They have access in one click to all the knowledge in the world. They have the ability to find like-minded people online and to crowd-source money, people and intellect. They have the flawless ability to use new technology with purpose and without fear. The kid who fixes your computer is average, and the fact that she can bring it back to life is merely the tip of the iceberg of her never-before-seen enablement as a human being online and off. The rest of us are digital immigrants, and we only speak digital as a second language.
And our millennials, these 18- to 29-year-olds around us, are possessed of a desire to improve their world. They volunteer more hours a month than their parents' or grandparents' generations. Eighty nine percent of young adult consumers will change brands if they approve of the pro-social proposition attached to the opposite brand. These new Americans are becoming our greatest generation. As they age up into command and control of society, they carry with them on the PDA in their pocket, their digital abilities, their huge personal networks plus their commendable obsession with fixing what is broken. And here they are running between theaters, up and down the hill of Main Street in Park City, because these are their films.
The E-Team is the up-close and personal account of the incredibly brave young people of Human Rights Watch, who climb over barbed wire at 3 a.m. into Syria to document the atrocities inflicted on civilians -- the cluster bombs, the killings, the dead children in the arms of their distraught mothers -- so that through their meticulous records, the perpetrators can be brought to justice before the International Criminal Court, and the next despot can perhaps be made to think twice. But we also focus on the personal lives of these brave young people. In the middle of the Syrian war zone, a young couple wonder whether a late period might indicate the pregnancy for which they hope. On the way to risk his life, a young man marvels at how expensive breakfast can be if you buy it in an airport. A young Russian woman, her English flawless, rather likes the anonymity of wearing her burka to slip into Syria, while deploring the male dominance that mandates it. She realizes it might save her life. And the team's breaking news of the indiscriminate bombing of a village that kills scores of innocents is in Berlin and New York and Paris. In nanoseconds, via the digital cloud that spans their world in real time, from a Syrian village with no running water to the front page of The New York Times in the blink of an eye, through the great personal bravery of a handful of young people and those PDAs.
At the emotional, triumphant Sundance Premiere of The E-Team, that same young couple walk down the aisle and up to the stage carrying their baby, as the equally young audience stand and cheer.
Jehane Noujaim's vivid documentary The Square, nominated for an Academy Award, takes the muscular digital millennial passion for social justice even further. A group of young people meet in Tahrir Square at the beginning of a true national psychodrama, the fight for democracy in ever-autocratic Egypt. Some of them are secular and some loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood. But they bond as friends over too much coffee and confront the regime's fire hoses, tear gas and the live ammunition that takes one of their lives. And they win, against appalling odds, not once but twice. They drive Mubarak from power and achieve democracy. But the Muslim Brotherhood and its democratically elected President Morsi soon adopt an autocratic "one man, one vote, one time," and in their own way rapidly become as totalitarian as ever Mubarak was, if less corrupt. So they get rid of Morsi too, only to then see the army back in power in all its crush-any-dissent ruthlessness.
How do we know all this? Because they film their struggle. Terrible scenes of military armored vehicles deliberately running over demonstrators, of the friends' ecstasy and despair as political tides ebb and flow. This is a real revolution filmed from the inside, in all its human messiness. The Square is a massive pillar of fire, of truth, amid the rival factions' attempts to spin history. Within two hours of the film going live on Netflix, limited to, and encrypted for, the U.S. market, it was hacked. In 12 hours, The Square was uploaded onto hundreds of pirate sites in and out of Egypt. And in a couple of days, multiple rival versions of the film appeared, re-edited by the opposing factions of the revolution to reflect their own polarized versions of truth. The balanced filmmakers' version is now out on Egyptian screens, under the banner of being the film they actually made.
Meanwhile, in Maiden Square, in Kiev, Ukraine, thousands of young people brave sub-zero temperatures to watch The Square projected onto amazing large screens inflated with automobile tire pumps, while volunteers with bull horns translate the words in real time. Young Ukrainians, amid their own bloody, brave revolutionary fight for social justice, learn lessons from a very Egyptian young people's revolution through media. What Nick Negroponte called the "exogenous brain," the unprecedented digital composite of human consciousness, is no abstract concept these days. It lives, breathes and interacts in the shared digital DNA of millions of young people seeking to make their world a better place.
The average age of the U.S. Congress rises ever higher, as its members become ever less connected with the real lives of young adults. But all is not lost. Young filmmakers and their audiences are leading the march to a better world, one film, one text and one blog at a time. An unstoppable wave of social justice is coming, long-overdue but now spread through the robust digital anthill of the millennial Web. Its films engender empathy that moves hearts and opens minds to new thinking, to new solutions. You can be optimistic. Our millennials are defining action steps towards a better future. Which is a good thing, because they alone will inherit it.
Peter Samuelson, producer of 25 films, including Arlington Road, Wilde, Tom & Viv and Revenge of the Nerds is also a founder of The Starlight Children's Foundation, Starbright World, First Star and EDAR, charities operating around the world. He is President of ASPIRE, the Academy for Social Purpose in Responsible Entertainment, which teaches storytelling for social change through media to undergraduates of many disciplines, piloted at UCLA.
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