Written and directed by Benji Bergmann and Jono Bergmann
Classification N/A; 87 minutes
Opens May 20 in Toronto and Vancouver, May 23 in Ottawa and May 27 in Waterloo and Hamilton, Ont.
There is a poignant moment toward the end of the bio-doc Mau where Canadian designer Bruce Mau emerges from a tense medical appointment to report that his doctor has chastised him for failing to look after his heart health. Mau’s philosophy is that everything in life is either accidental or designed, and he ruefully concedes he has not been designing his health. Aside from his physical vulnerability, the scene also reveals his professional limits. Maybe Mau should be working less, exercising more and eating better but surely there are also genetic or environmental factors that have contributed to his heart problems. Contrary to Mau’s optimistic philosophy, we can’t actually design our way out of every problem.
You wouldn’t shoot a film about Mau if you didn’t feel he was an immensely talented person with an original vision and a dramatic story, but this documentary by the Austrian filmmaking brothers Benji and Jono Bergmann does not indulge in hagiography. It follows Mau sympathetically, from his hard-scrabble childhood in Sudbury, Ont., as the son of a violent alcoholic miner to his rapid rise as a Toronto graphic designer, his career cemented by S, M, L, XL, a design manifesto he created with the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. But as Mau has expanded his practice beyond graphic design to include architecture, planning, branding and consultancy (and moved to Chicago), the Bergmanns also show where he has run into trouble.
His philosophy is inspiring: Anyone who takes steps toward a planned outcome is a designer; everything can be better designed and we should all get at it if seven billion people are going to live comfortably together on one planet. What he seems to be missing is political acuity.
His rebranding of Guatemala was highly successful until they impeached the education minister who sponsored it. His redesign of the crowded pilgrimage site at Mecca was shelved because he isn’t Muslim (but is inspiring the Islamic architects and planners now working on the problem). The 2004 Massive Change exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery argued design would save the world but, to Mau’s disappointment, did not actually turn viewers into designers. The ambitious sequel planned with a Beijing art school ran aground during the diplomatic fiasco that followed Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
None of this means Mau is wrong; indeed his get-to-it philosophy is an important antidote to defeatism and incrementalism in the face of problems such as climate change. The Bergmanns’ sensitive approach to their subject, which produced heartbreaking footage of Mau revisiting the abandoned house where he once lived as a terrorized child, reveals a visionary accustomed to beating the odds.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.