The recent Occupy Wall Street protests have slowly grown to occupy our lives over the last couple months—from small media stories to full-blown visibility in pop culture. I thought it might be helpful to offer some documentary titles that show us how the banks succeeded in seizing power in the United States, and how their actions effectively created our current financial crisis. Now, it’s up to us to take it back. Hopefully these films will offer a bit of inspiration, that is, if you haven’t already been thoroughly inspired by the wave of demonstrations sweeping the nation and the world. Please feel free to offer any other film suggestions!
Zeitgeist: Moving Forward (2011), directed by Peter Joseph—This is a film that questions they very foundation of capitalism. Within the first few minutes, it asks us to think about what really matters in life—in turn, it poses the question: “what will happen when the thrill of acquiring stuff runs out?” We then hear from a 94 year old man, who describes his personal history of questioning and his life long examination of the reasons behind such atrocities such as the Great Depression and World War II. He sagely admits, “I have watched the social values of society be reduced to a base artificiality of materialism and mindless consumption.” He adds that he has been witness to the monetary powers who have taken over the political system, and exclaims, “This shit has to go.” As the film continues, Joseph weaves us through the story of human nature and social pathology, eventually leading us toward an explanation of the connection between the latter to our current economy. It eventually questions how we approach our societal need to lead healthy, prosperous lives. How do we accomplish this? What does sustainability look like? It’s a film that seamlessly combines clever (and sometimes feisty) talking heads with animations and engaging visual representations of its proposed ideas. If you have two hours one day, I highly recommend watching this third installment in Peter Joseph’s Zeitgeist documentary series.
Inside Job (2010), directed by Charles Ferguson—This is a great documentary that follows the recent history of the financial crisis. The film first acquaints us with the issues of Iceland, its privatization, and the bubble that eventually led to its financial collapse. It then takes us back to how it all began, back to the subprime mortgage market. From here, it leads us through the CDO market and the way through which everyone along the process avoided accountability for toxic loans, shedding light on the general exploitation of already disadvantaged people. A series of talking heads—albeit very significant ones—relate varying perspectives on the collapse of the global system. Although don’t let talking heads food you—this documentary has received rave reviews and has captivated a wide audience. Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian has even characterized it “as gripping as any thriller.” Yet while this film tells a compelling and (mostly) forthright story, if you are unfamiliar with bank jargon, you might have a bit of hard time following it. If you happen to fall into this category, I suggest first tuning in to my next suggestion.
The Giant Pool of Money (2008), from NPR (National Public Radio) is an award-winning collaboration between This American Life and Planet Money. Adam Davidson and Alex Blumberg, aka the Planet Money team, have a true gift for being able to explain complex economic ideas in simple, easy to understand ways. This American Life’s Ira Glass joins them in this episode. The result is a detailed account of the reasons behind the financial meltdown. What makes this such a great collaboration, is that it borrows elements from Planet Money—being able to explain sometimes convoluted ideas in a clear, concise way—with those of This American Life, which has this powerful way of inviting you into very personal interviews with those who are directly involved. Unlike Inside Job, we hear from the normal 99%, for example, the people who were miraculously offered a slice of the American dream—a mortgage without questions. We also hear from someone who got rich quick by selling bad mortgages, but who, upon losing his money, ironically had no choice but to default on his own mortgage. If you’d like to keep informed, check out Planet Money’s weekly podcast and blog.
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010), directed by Alex Gibney—Before watching this documentary, I hadn’t realized how significant a role Eliot Spitzer had played in the prosecution of corporate fraud while he was Attorney General of New York. Unfortunately, my recent memories of him had been flooded with the scandal of his resignation as Governor of New York after he was discovered to have paid for sex from an escort service. Before the scandal, he had used the powerful Martin Act of 1921, which allowed him to subpoena witnesses and company documents specifically relating to corporate malpractice. The film suggests that his efforts toward ending corporate corruption made him a significant number of powerful enemies, who in turn, were responsible for “discovering” his relationship with the escort service.
Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), directed by Michael Moore—Like all Michael Moore documentaries, this film has a hint of sensationalism. Although this makes his films a bit more accessible and enjoyable to watch (don't you just love them?), it also tends to contribute to his reputation as a controversial, albeit commercial, filmmaker in American pop culture. Nevertheless, the film makes some excellent points and tells some compelling stories in which are worth investing time.
The Corporation (2003), directed by Jennifer Abbot and Mark Achbar—This film cleverly tells the story of how the corporation became a legal person, an act which would incomprehensibly grant big businesses the same rights as other US citizens. The documentary, in turn, gives a psychiatric diagnosis of the actions of corporations on the same terms—as individuals who, according to the symptoms, happen to be psychotic. Although it is older than some of the other films on this list, the ideas that it presents are worth revisiting.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), directed by Frank Capra—Speaking of older films, this one may be old, but it’s not as dated as you may think (at least in terms of speaking about class; it still is pretty dated in terms of race and gender). Although it’s not really a documentary, it still tells an age-old story of bank corruption. Frank Capra’s films famously portrayed the ideals of the American Dream, with his everyday protagonists triumphing against all odds, and especially against corrupt power. This blog happens to be the namesake of another famous Capra film about challenging corporate power, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of big bank greed against the interests of working class and middle class people during the Great Depression. If you’ll be in the United States this Thanksgiving, make sure to catch this classic, because the values that Capra channels through James Stewart’s character, George Bailey, are still surprisingly relevant.
Meltdown: The Secret History of the Global Financial Crisis (2010), from CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) is a four-part series brought to you by America’s friendly neighbor, Canada. Although somewhat dramatic at times, it presents some interesting information, such as the major players, the international ripple effects from their actions, and the perspectives of victims who experienced the foreclosures. One person they mention is Angelo Mozilo from Countrywide Mortgage, who apparently had been making $100 million a year at the height of the housing boom. While espousing the values of George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Light by promising mortgages to the poor, in actuality, he was operating clandestinely like big banker Mr. Potter, by ensuring future foreclosures for people who he knew could not afford their mortgages. In short, this series covers similar themes to those of some of the above documentaries, particularly that of Inside Job, such as deregulation and the bankruptcy of Iceland. Nevertheless, it offers a different perspective on our general theme.
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