UnityAugust 15, 2015
There are many definitions of what “it truly means to be human”, and Shaun Monson’s Unity tries out most of them. One of my own definitions is that it is truly human to feel a sense of creeping irritation when we find our own, most banal opinions being fed back to us as revelations. If you’ve ever had a few doubts about war, racism, sexism, and cruelty to animals, this film will clear up the confusion. They are all bad ideas.
Unity, in the words of the press release, “is a new documentary that explores humanity’s hopeful transformation from living by killing into living by loving. It is a unique film about compassion for all beings, or all ‘expressions of life’, and going beyond all ‘separation based on form’…”
Is that clear? Good. The doco is divided into five chapters: Cosmos, Mind, Body, Heart and Soul, and narrated by an unprecedented gathering of 101 dalmatians. Sorry! 101 celebrities – everyone from Aaron Paul to Zoe Saldana. It would be easier to list the absentees rather than the participants.
Unity bears some similarity to films such as Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, and Ron Fricke’s Baraka and Samsara. There is the same relentless barrage of images which may be beautiful or confonting, spectacular or teasingly familiar. The point of difference is that Reggio and Fricke rely on music to drive the montage, while Monson’s visuals are overlaid with muttered fragments of would-be profundity. Rather than the jackhammer rhythms of Philip Glass, he favours maudlin strings that underline the ‘seriousness’ of his message.
Another difference is that Monson seems to delight in piling up images of horror, as if hoping to shock his audience into submission.
The celebrity chorus may be a cute idea but it is not easy to become immersed in this film. Although it is set up as one long cosmic steambath, many of the propositions broadcast by the invisible celebrities are hard to swallow.
A sequence that tracks the evolution of human rights from the time of Cyrus the Great to the present is mind-boggling in its simplifications. Every part of this summary invites argument, but I almost gagged at the the idea of the French Revolution being a golden age of human rights. The Revolution may have begun with noble ideas about liberty, equality and fraternity, but there was nothing noble about the Terror, which saw thousands of people executed for ideological reasons.
Such contradictions tend to upset the incisive dichotomies of this movie such as: “human rights = good, mass murder = bad”.
From the very beginning we learn that it is wrong to kill and eat animals – a lesson illustrated by a sickening film clip showing a terrified cow awaiting its turn in the abattoir. By the end the celebrities are teling us plants have consciousness too, which seems to imply that we shouldn’t kill and eat them either. One suspects that the idiot dentist who shot Cecil the lion has done more for the cause of animal rights than any amount of vegan proselytising.
It is reasonable to argue that our treatment of animals is a measure of our own humanity. To be sensitive to the pain and suffering of another sentient being is a big step on the way to peaceful co-existence. But this is not the same as embracing vegetarianism.
To make their case, the celebs point out that the largest, strongest animals in the world, such as elephants and cattle, are vegetarians. The logical corollary is that we might be as strong as an ox if we ate only grass.
Monson tackles the big question about the Meaning of Life, telling us it all comes down to selflessness – letting go of the ego and the strivings it generates. It would be interesting to know how many of the celebrity narrators endorse this form of Hollywood Buddhism. It projects a vision of nothingness that seems strangely at odds with the lifestyles of most movies stars.
“Consciousness is when we feel the suffering of every creature in our own hearts,” says Jennifer Aniston. “That is our relationship to the harmony of being.”
Larenz Tate chimes in: “Living by loving may be the ultimate solution to all of humankind’s difficulties.”
Catherine Tate adds: “We’ve simply got to evolve beyond any act that involves the destruction of any life.”
“No more war,” begins the celebrity chorus. “No more racism. No more sexism. No more speciesism. No more opposite intensities.”
Opposite intensities? Ask Joaquin Phoenix.
If only we could get rid of our competitive, violent urges, embrace other species and become one big omelette of love, what a wonderful world it would be… Unless you are insensitive enough to believe that a world without striving would be a very dull place.
Written & directed by Shaun Monson,
Starring 100 celebrities.. you name ‘em.
USA, rated M, 99 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 15th August, 2015.