Monday, 23 January 2012
Documentaries in Financial Times
The most internationally dreaded way in which the world can end on 2012 seems to be financially. The world's economies have struggled against the advent of the second great depression since 2008 and are at breaking point in many parts of the world. Personally, I see the hardships that the world's economies have faced as a sign that they should be developed into better-controlled, more equal systems where the richest 1% of investors doesn't reap all the benefits when the poor get poorer and poorer. But then again, I am a dirty liberal, possibly even a communist depending if your economic views are particularly right-winged. You don't have to believe me, as more qualified documentarists have already explained the causes of financial crises and how we should go on from there better than I ever could. In honor of DocPoint also starting tomorrow in Helsinki, here are four of them.
Inside Job (2010)
Director: Charles Ferguson
The most famous documentary about the current financial crisis is this film, which also won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2011. The film, as narrated by Matt Damon, goes to the roots of the international financial problems. The film makes complex financial subjects so simple even a child could understand them, using simple graphs and clear-worded interviews. It also dares to point out the seedy CEOs and government officials who gain massive bonuses while their own companies are failing and requiring government bailout. If one doesn't get angry at fat cats while watching this film, one must either be one of the 1%, or have no pulse. Things aren't even necessarily getting better as of this moment, since politicians aren't preparing to change the system but rather just waiting for things to go back to the status quo. That's why it should be the duty for every voter in every western country to be aware of the shortcomings of current international economy and demand for change.
A lot of time and money has been used to make the film. This is seen in the huge number of interviewed financial experts, and the polished style with which the film flows forward. So, the film is multifaceted. Therein also lies the biggest flaws of the film. It attempts to capture too much of faults of the international businesses according modern neo liberal world view. Thus it takes fleeting shots here and there but doesn't linger on, or delve into many interesting things properly. The film could do well without life stories of poor people foreclosed by banks – their story is fascinating but now feels like only an afterthought in an overtly stuffed film. However, if the viewer feels that the economic crisis is a massive, hard thing to grasp, and doesn't know where to start unfolding the international issues, this is a good place to start. In other words, if you only watch one financial documentary, make it this one.
Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)
Director: Michael Moore
On the other hand, the erstwhile gripping documentary maker Michael Moore's subsequent efforts continue to diminish in their outcome. The Michigan-born liberal filmmaker grew famous with his Oscar and Cannes winning films in the mid-2000s, but with the growth of his fame he has had to struggle to create all of his subsequent films. No longer can he just play dumb for his interviewees and lure them into revealing sinister agendas. All the while Moore has listened to his critiques and made his films less comedic, and featured less of himself in them. But there's still no mistake about who has directed this, probably one of the most big-headed documentaries of all time.
For Moore's aim is no less than to get the United States to renounce the Capitalistic world view. Or, at least the neo liberal ethos that has transcended in the nation's economic affairs since Ronald Reagan's presidency, but Americans are not known to be that good with political concepts. Moore uses his trademarked sarcastic wit and sense of humour to paraphase his points, as well as using archive footage to illustrate them. At times this is quite funny, but the whole thing feels more like a political pamphlet than anything resembling journalism. Moore has also been one to make entertainment out of issues, which usually works in balance, but he's lost it here. Even more than Inside Job, Capitalism bounces back and forth on issues that Capitalism touches.
As the whole political-economic viewpoint is even a more vast subject than the economic crisis, it is nigh impossible to fit everything important about it in two hours. Moore's ideas on how to replace the system are ill-rationalized and confusing. Does he want the sort of social democracy Nordic countries have to descend into America, or does he want to return to the more state-controlled capitalism of American pre-Reagan era? It's hard to believe he'll be able to convince anyone with his half-baked film even though judging by the film's final words he seems to think he can start a massive rebellion against monetary power.
Hey, Moore, you're a millionaire yourself. That's why it should be questioned whether you can really be the voice of the 99%. I know you use some of your massive fortune for charities, but if you really would want to hammer the message home, you'd give it all away, like Jesus taught.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)
Director: Alex Gibney
As a proof of the economy's ongoing redistribution of wealth, this film works better than Moore's or even Ferguson's efforts. Even though Enron was released seven years ago (and is based on an even older book), it still feels fresh. The bankruptcy of the Texan energy, commodities, and services company Enron corporation in 2001 was a tip of the iceberg for things to come. The template of that financial disaster was followed pretty clearly by companies such as Lehman Brothers or the Bank of America, that really got the ball rolling on the new worldwide depression. The difference is that Enron's executives actually were prosecuted in court, whereas the culprits for more modern financial crises tend to walk away scot free.
The film itself is about the funnest one about economy issues. You don't have to dig pertty well, when there's always indescribable greed and power-hungriness beneath huge failed businesses. In Enron's case, the decadence this has caused for the giant oil corporation would be hilarious if it weren't so damn scary. Strip clubs, gambling, cheating in booking, even getting involved to earn more moolah from California's energy crisis. It seems that Enron's executives and traders had little to no morale or decency when it came to earning money. But they had an ace in keeping good realtions with politicians who'll help them out here and there, such as, infamously, the then-president of the United States, George W. Bush. He also appointed his own friends to high-ranking seats in Enron, and gave good new jobs to former Enron executives who lost their job for one reason or another.
The film's problems are that since there are little actual filmic evidence of these happenings at Enron, it has to rely a lot on talking heads. That is quite a usual approach in financial documentaries. Fortunately, they have quite interesting stories to tell here. The film is also a fascinating piece on how certain news events affect corporations. It also shows how the personalitites of the high-ups can affect the company's big decisions. But it is also a sad reminder that no one actually fixed the system where executives and traders are rewarded for taking more and more outrageous risks at the cost of poorer people's jobs.
Zeitgeist: Moving Forward (2011)
Director: Peter Joseph
Unlike many other financial documentaries, this one takes a look in the future and attempts to visual how society should be developed to be more equal and to take away the power given to bankers and rich investors. A valiant effort, but sadly, the film is utopist to the point where it starts to work against itself. No wonder The Zeitgeist movement is seen by many as being only for nutcases such as conspiracy theorists and UFO enthusiasts. That is not entirely true. The international Zeitgeist movement is a low-level social movement aiming for resource-based economy based on the principles of sustainable development (meaning that people shouldn't consume resources more than Earth can produce). It is an important issue worth fighting for, because the survival of every individual on this planet is at stake. The only thing I disagree with the Zeitgeist movement is what the end result should be, but since we're not there yet, we should all work together, not give each other easy labels.
The film is the third and the most popular of the trio of director/writer Peter Joseph's films about the economy. The 2,5 hour film (!) goes through four parts which consider what kind of an economic future is possible. Each part takes about 40 minutes. It has to be said that by content, this film is the furthest away from journalistic commentary of financial issues. Maybe Joseph's two previous films deal with the issues further. This one starts with (well-grounded) physical and psychological proof that greed is not in human nature. rather, living in communities, assisting others is. Joseph takes it that the modern aggressively capitalist system is unnatural and made for unsocial individuals that are bent on abusing others for their personal gain. Because this is mostly done with interviews with a handful of experts, it is not as interesting than it really should be.
The other half of the film is devoted to the new world view of Joseph, and by extention, the Zeitgeist movement. The resource-based future abolishes money, rebuilds cities to work more efficiently . There are certain good ideas in the mix, such as the localization of distribution of resources, but as a whole, it seems silly and way too big a change. We would need a nuclear war (to clean the plate), thousands of years of time and international cooperation to actually achieve it. The bad CGI model pictures do little to convince that this would be the only possible future for all mankind. The film is also shaky in its tone. Most of the time it's almost hilariously straight-faced which makes a single Monty Python-tributing scene fit the film poorly. Joseph himself is hardly as magnetic a personality or even as good a filmmaker as Michael Moore, so it is easier to take his sayings with a grain of salt. But it is at least couraging that there are people internationally willing to work for a better future, and distributing these films and giving free screenings...
... Likewise I'm proud that the sort of non-violent protests such as Occupy Wall Street have spread around the world. I try to be a realist myself, but I do think that it is possible to change the outcome of this here Earth and end the tyranny of neo liberal economy, which serves only to redistribute wealth for the small upper class. You should fight against injustice, too. Get out and spread the word!