Raoul Martinez’ The Lottery of Birth is a documentary about ideas: historical, political, psychological, sociological. It’s a post-Marxist critique of capitalist society, a polemic that touches on all the big issues, and asks the individual to question the ideas, norms and pathways that inform their life. Using interviews with writers and academics from a range of fields, it’s a call for self-examination that will, one presumes, lead to social transformation.
This is a thought-provoking and carefully structured film, but it suffers perhaps from trying to cover too much ground. The fundamental question it raises is that we all accept the rules of the society we’re born into, whether it’s our cultural alliance to our country or the route from state-run education to the job market, and that personal freedom can only be found by challenging these rules. But whilst I applaud any liberal film-maker who is willing to engage with such big-picture concepts, the film occasionally drifts into a series of slogans. It is consistently engaging though, principally through the articulacy of its contributors, including psychologist Steven Pinker, historian Howard Zinn, writer George Monbiot, former journalist Nick Davies, and environmental physicist Vandana Shiva. Each talks with passion about the need to examine ourselves and the world around us, their insights underscored by the disarming intimacy achieved as they talk directly into the camera.
Indeed, the film is convincing without ever being hysterical, and whilst some of its ideas have been kicked around in liberal circles for many years, providing an accessible channel for them has enormous value. And the film unearths some alarming facts as well. I didn’t know, for example, quite how many countries governments the US has tried to overthrow since the second world war (it’s over 50), or that Britain killed as many people during its colonial occupation of India as Stalin did in Soviet Russia. An authoritative narrator also tells us about a malevolent committee of business leaders and politicians set up in the early 1970s to look into the spread of political and cultural disobedience of the previous decade. They actually pinned it down to education. The youth of the 60s were the first generation to have been educated to expect to have control over their lives; it was recommended that education should be more vocational as a result. There is footage, too, of an infamous experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s, whereby volunteers were tested to see how much pain they would inflict on another person simply because they were told to do it, illustrating our pre-disposed willingness to obey.
The Lottery of Birth provides a lot of food for thought. It bangs the drum for change without ever suggesting how change can be achieved, and occasionally simplifies important topics with overly broad brushstrokes. In that sense, one hopes that Martinez will make more targeted documentaries further down the line. This is the first in a series under the banner ‘Creating Freedom’. It’s an admirable idea, and to know thyself as well as the world around us should be something we’re all aiming at. To make a more substantial contribution to such a big debate, however, will require more rigour.