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A Quest for Meaning (En quête de sens)

2015, US 2018
Distributed by Bullfrog Films, PO Box 149, Oley, PA 19547; 800-543-FROG (3764)
Produced by Nathanaël Coste and Marc de la Ménardière
Directed by Nathanaël Coste and Marc de la Ménardière
DVD, color, 87 min.
General Adult
Globalization, Travel and Tourism, Spirituality, Third World

Reviewed by Dmitrii Sidorov, California State University, Long Beach

Recommended with reservations   
Date Entered: 4/12/2018

Two young idealistic French men in their late twenties, annoyed by imperfections of the world and affected by the recent global financial crisis, quit their corporate lifestyles in Manhattan to start traveling around the world from their new home base in France. Their goal—to interview grassroots activists and non-mainstream thinkers who may know how to make the world a better place. Nathanaël has a lot of screen time, yet we almost never hear him, even if he is visualizing the action (the dialogues). He is also somewhat of an avatar of Marc who is mostly behind the scenes doing the camera work and narration (and confusing usage of “me” and “we”).

The point of this film endeavor is presented as an attempt to uncover the causes of “our current global crisis and to discover a way to bring about change.” The crisis is not clearly specified, and at the beginning, the film seems to be stream of consciousness with bits of Third World spiritual wisdom on personal happiness and dignity, mixed with anti-globalist and anti-corporatist statements. For example, twenty five minutes into the film, Marc, the film’s narrator, reveals with heavy a French accent that the original idea of the film was to make a movie about alternative lifestyles, yet in a few days “these people” (at this moment we see a relatively clean train platform somewhere in India with low middle class passengers) “changed my entire way of perceiving the world, economy, the nature, and even my idea of progress. … they reformatted my hard-drive” (25:53). Then we see a scene of local Indians washing hands, perhaps somewhere in a Ganges-river spiritual city, with an evocative world music track and touristy golden sunset in the background. Marc keeps lamenting that “we lost touch with essentials of life”, while an Indian yoga teacher instructs: “enjoy this universe … keep balance between the sciences and spiritual science … you cannot get happiness from the market, for happiness you need to look inside” – and that is the end of the Indian part.

The film then jumps to France where the friends go through their video interviews in the solitude of a snow-covered village somewhere amidst forested mountains of the Savoy region. That seems to be a good place to make an intermediate conclusion that the previously interviewed Indians were tackling “the roots of current crises” (again, not defined) and that in their opinion it was impossible to find solution “without questioning commercial and materialistic mentality that has created them.” Visit to a French organic farmer follows -- he presents his experience of finding a way “out of this groundless existence that people have and this disconnection from the real foundation of life”. The farmer seemingly needs some dental work yet he does not need what arguably many others lack--“eye work” so to speak—his eyes radiate enthusiastic interest in life. Then Frederic Lenoir, the writer/historian of religion, in Paris, discusses how our relations with nature changed over time. The hunter-gatherers were connected to nature and “while hunting, a man would pray for the soul of his prey.” Christianity instead promoted domination of nature. The quest that drives this film as this point becomes defined is “disconnect between man and nature, body and soul”. To learn more about these disconnects, the film jumps to Central America and Mexico. We hear about a bath of purification, yet for some reason Nathanaël and Marc do not animate the film by taking the bath (thus personally exemplifying, rather than resolving, the disconnection between man and nature, body and soul). Perhaps there is no need to spoil the film’s viewing by discussing all the stops the two inquisitive French young men managed to made – enjoy with them meeting a mystic at Lake Atitlan (a popular American expats area in Guatemala), then relocate to San Francisco and Los Angeles (without any of the border crossing issues), then to France, then elsewhere while they keep lamenting on global crises.

“Meeting inspiring people, rediscovering nature, decolonizing mind while discovering joy” – this is how in the end Marc summarizes this experience -- and this message shall get its own appreciative audience. The film starts and ends with allusion to the archetypal desire to keep our childlike dreams of travelling the world alive, all the ecological/decolonizing/spiritual messages of being open to dialog with the world are difficult to deny. Many good spirited people around the world would like to have that kind of socially conscious and geographically exciting life style yet may be locked in their 9-to-5 jobs and burdened by endless obligations, and the film does not explain how all its travels were funded. Only once Marc opens up about something less vague and universal and more personal by confessing at some point of being just dreamers “no job, no plans, no producer for the film.” These sort of intimate moments of connection with the social, real world are too rare in the film. This seems to be an opportunity missed—the two millennials deserve to be more of the focus instead of the many older talking heads sharing conventions of the past.

As interviewed founder of Schumacher University, the UK, Satish Kumar, eloquently put it, “don’t seek employment, create it.” This is arguably how change is to be done in the epoch of millennials. Truly important, this entrepreneurial message comes in the very end of the film entirely unexpected. A Quest for Meaning, being crowdfunded by close to 1000 people, is an impossible yet accomplished film project created by two entrepreneurial (and somewhat manipulative) millennials who deserve to be in the very center of the film. Nominally they are -- yet upon closer analysis, viewers may be surprised to notice that these two traveling filmmakers, supposedly two friends from childhood, have never talked in the film to each other or about each other in any depth… Very smart, by the way!