Director: Hauke Wendler (Germany). Year of Release: 2022
You’ll know what a Monobloc is, even if you don’t recognise the name. It’s one of those plastic chairs, often white, that is absolutely everywhere (as proof we see photos of a Turkish football riot any even Abu Ghraib, where a Monobloc sits prominently among the ongoing torture). There are now 1 billion Monoblocs worldwide, which I make 1 for every 8 people.
We visit the factory in Italy that has produced hundreds of millions of them. The factory didn’t design the original Monobloc – that was a French engineer, who neglected to apply for a patent. Fortunately (if you want to put it that way), the film makers discovered a Monobloc enthusiast (yes, there are such people) who filmed an interview with the Frenchman before he died.
Monoblocs are cheap to make, and can be produced quickly – it takes less than a minute for each chair. They may be uncomfortable and easily break, but if we go beyond the rich Global North, the choice is not between a cheap plastic chair and a luxury suite, but between sitting on a Monobloc and staying stood up. To emphasize the point, following our trip to Italy and France, we take a world tour which shows us just how international the Monobloc had become.
First, there is the Ugandan Christian mission, which converts plastic chairs into wheelchairs – a valuable asset in a country where 5 million of the 40 million population have a disability, and 1 million will need a wheelchair some time in their life. The mission distributes their half-plastic wheelchairs to people who can’t wait for an alternative that they couldn’t afford anyway..
In India, we visit a factory which is one of the new centres of Monobloc production. Someone with a supervisory job explains that he started on the shop floor but now can afford to pay for his children’s education. One of the bosses gives us all sorts of marketing speak to explain why plastic is not going away (well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?) Whether or not Monoblocs benefit poor people who can’t afford anything else, someone is making a tidy profit.
Much of the film seems to be about a fabricated controversy about something that really isn’t that important. To provoke a Mrs. Merson-style “heated debate”, the director Hauke Wendler parks a van in a middle of a German city and asks people to rant about what they think about plastic chairs. Most prevaricate saying they’re not the greatest pieces of furniture the world has seen, but no-one seems that bothered.
The film sidesteps the most important argument against plastic – thw potential damage to the environment. It’s not that the question isn’t raised – a couple of people mention it in passing. But it is not directly addressed. Instead we are told that the environment is safe because plastic chairs can be recycled. We go to Brazil to meet a woman who collects and sells rubbish, and gets much more for plastic chairs that, say, paper. These chairs are then melted down to make … new plastic chairs.
But recyclability is not the same as biodegradability, far from it. The fact that a chair can be transformed into something else – whether this be a wheelchair or another plastic stool – does not mean that it won’t linger on the planet for the indefinite future. While there is an argument to be made that short-term gains could trump future dangers, this argument is just not put.
At the end of the film, Wendler comes to the conclusion that the argument isn’t black and white, which is fine, but did anyone suggest that it was anything else? You’re left a little perplexed why he chose to make a film about this particular subject. There is some new interesting information (the wheelchairs, for instance), but this could be fit into a 5-minute news section. The rest of it isn’t obviously anything we don’t already know.
Monobloc isn’t a bad film. Many of the scenes are astoundingly beautiful – which has more than a little to do with the fact that Wendler was able to persuade his financiers that he absolutely had to go and film in a series of exotic locations. We may not learn much new from his visits, but they look stunning, and I hope that he had a good time there. But his conclusion – some people can only afford cheap furniture and we shouldn’t sneer at them – is hardly revelatory.
So go along and see it, it’s interesting enough – there’s even scenes from a design museum which has managed to find room for a Monobloc. But even this is there to show the Monobloc as a development towards something that was more comfortable and better looking. Maybe it’s enough to celebrate the banalaties of life, but part of me is thinking, I’ve only got so much time, and there’s a lot of banal things out there.