Documentary Review: Can Bruce “Mau” save the world by design?

“Mau” is a documentary about the Canadian thinker, futurist and designer Bruce Mau, a man who wants to make the world realize “your life is a designed life.” And if the design of that life, this profession, that cultural practice or this “system” — labor, transportation, housing, environmental stewardship, government, etc. — isn’t working, there’s no reason to despair.

“We can redesign it. We have the capacity to change the world.”

If that sounds like the world’s most optimistic TED Talk, well that’s a fair label. “Mau” is mostly Mau talking, in fresh interviews and archival news reports, with others in his orbit singing his praises, and a collection of long anecdotes of how he was handed big problems that he was able to synthesize into an idea that might fit on a button.

“Think forever. Design for perpetuity.” “Break through the noise.” “Compete with Beauty.” “Your responsibility (as a designer) is to inspire people.”

Mau, who “designed” his life to get out of an abusive home in the Canadian mining town of Sudbury in northern Ontario and become one of the world’s most influential Big Thinkers, is often tagged as a great communicator, and a “naive utopian.”

But over the decades, if your soft drink company (Coca-Cola) wanted to rethink its business and rebrand itself as “sustainable,” if your government wanted to end the chaotic crowding that occasionally leads to Hajj stampedes and mass death at Mecca, if your country wanted to shed its past and bring back “the ability to dream,” Mister Outside-the-Box has been who you call.

“Cynicism is for others,” he preaches. He’s started a short-term school he named The Institute Without Boundaries.” He tried to get civil war-torn Guatemala to think of itself as “Guate! Amala!” so that the populace could look to the future with hope. And when asked to come up with a “10 year plan” to lessen traffic issues at the most sacred site in Islam, he proposed a “1000 Year Plan” that would get pilgrims into the country, and spread them over a string of redesigned entrances to the city in a way that would alleviate dangerous crowding no matter what mode of transport the future holds.

Mau’s “Massive Change” design show of 2005-6 pushed big ideas at big problems. And his “Massive Action” follow-up, planned for China a couple of years back, would look for ways to empower everyone to make a positive impact on the world’s most alarming problems — climate change and “sustainability” topping that list.

That’s a through line of the film, that Mau’s best pitches — like the ideas of Buckminster Fuller, Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke and others who think about the future — aren’t adopted, and that a lot of these initiatives can look like failures.

Saudi Arabia and the Islamic world bristled at the idea of a Kingdom-hired Canadian having anything to do with Mecca. China canceled the big “Massive Action” exhibition due to a freeze in Chinese-Canadian relations.

The barrel-chested Mau has had health scares forcing him to “redesign” the way he feeds, rests and exercises his body.

But giving up on any of these isn’t in his makeup or his philosophy. When you’re “challenging the old narrative,” there’s going to be pushback. Some people in Guatemala like the never-ending civil strife, or are threatened by any outsider commissioned to do what they can’t.

The idea — win, lose or gradually changing direction, is to focus “net positive design” in life, community, career and climate, to make a start and stick with it.

The film doesn’t do the best job of visualizing Mau’s ideas. We can see what he planned for Mecca, but other concepts and pitches are simply not as cinematic. “Mau” plays like most TED Talks. “Performance” only takes not-quite-concrete concepts so far.

Journalistic cynicism demands that one notice that PET soft drink bottles still cover the planet on land and sea, that the big problems only seem to grow thanks to a culture distracted not just by “Lady Gaga” and the doom-and-gloom evening news that Mau complains about, but by existential threats Mau and this film do not address — the global assault on democracy, the reverse of his “Free Women” platform for “Massive Change” that is happening even in the industrialized West.

But “Mau,” which tells a short version of the designer’s life story and early triumphs, dwells mostly on his ongoing crusade, accentuating the positive. The man insists that as we’ve designed these messes, we can design our way out of them.

Call him a Pollyanna if you like. This might be the hardest time in recent history to hear and listen to someone like him. But “Mau” has the audacity to suggest it could be the perfect time, as well.

Rating: unrated

Cast: Bruce Mau, Paola Antonelli, Bisi Williams, Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Bjarke Ingels

Credits: Directed by Benjamin Bergmann and Jono Bergmann. A Greenwich Entertainment release.

Running time: 1:17

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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