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Byron Shire
February 23, 2024

Living in the age of decadence

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He broke the cardinal rule of documentary filmmaking – he assumed we were an informed bunch. He did all the things a presenter should never do on camera (eating, picking his nose and walking backwards). Sounds like our kind of guy.

SBS veteran Pria Viswalingam’s documentary Decadence: The Decline of the Western World was the first official pick for the 6th Byron Bay International Film Festival.

The film has six core themes: democracy, religion, culture, money, family and education. It doesn’t answer the big questions, it asks them. Crossing 10 countries connecting with international and common speakers, Pria invested five years into this filmic essay. Reviews have been promising and so far the only criticism comes from those who are in denial about the decline of western civilisation. Pria and his fellow ‘declinologists’ believe that all civilisations rise and fall. ‘It’s frightening stuff; there is hard evidence of financial and moral decline, to mention a couple.’

Some viewers may feel threatened by the focus on western civilisation and question whether the East has the solutions.

Pria responded. ‘The East, as far as I can understand it, really only want to live like the West. They may be gaining more economic power but they are still aping the West. However, they are cherry-picking as they will not take certain fundamental truths from the west such as liberalism or human rights, for example.’

If we reflect on the struggle to achieve such human rights as those found in labour laws, this documentary will take you to places that undermine it all. Pria points out this decline.

‘We are now bypassing those laws by outsourcing overseas, placing ourselves at arm’s length and saying that the Australian company didn’t know about the conditions etc. That is nonsense!’

The model of democracy, as we have seen so far, has not brought the success we imagined. You will see in the film how this unsuccessful model is forced onto countries the West invades. If the film shows the failures of democracy, I asked Pria, what is the improved model?

‘I think democracy is the best model that we have got. People often say that democracy has never been pure, which is true because money has always been part of it. I think it is now awash with money, it has gone overboard. Whoever has enough money can influence politics for their own ends.’

It’s very easy to judge decision makers for being motivated by money, yet if we place the microscope on the microcosm, we see similar patterns. Pria refers to this as ‘individualism gone wild. We live in a community at the end of the day; it needs to be reconciled for the common good. The best that we can hope for from this film is to raise the flag and ask: have you thought about it in this light?’

Decadence is relative: one person’s family holiday could be seen as a waste of money and carbon. Is self-regulation the answer, or do we need more inspired leadership?

Pria deliberated… ‘Aagh, that is the next step, how do we turn around, being adrift? How do we put an anchor down? The bottom line is, I don’t know, it is really complicated. Look at climate change; separating garbage is tinkering around the edges. We need to stop taking flights and driving cars, move into houses with one room, that sort of thing. And that is not going to happen. Personally, I am rather more pessimistic than the film. Human behaviour changes when we hit a wall.’

The documentary cleverly examines numerous fundamental institutions. Well-informed viewers may find some new information delivered but they will struggle to find another presentation that blends these individual issues so adeptly.

It includes brilliant collection of interviewees, carefully balanced by gender. I wondered if this was deliberate: Pria delighted in the observation.

Amongst the Michael Moores of the ‘tongue in cheek’ documentary world, (where white man criticises white man), here stands a man who doesn’t have white skin!

‘That is a deep and poignant point,’ responded Pria. ‘One of the elements was having a non-Caucasian face up there doing interviews about these topics; you just don’t see it. In western media it is still largely white.’

We may have considered these questions before but as more locals are secretly considering joining the mining rush as the only option to afford living here, this multi-issued documentary is still relevant.

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