Next stop perdition
Sometimes making a documentary is all in the timing, writes Michael Bodey
FEW predicted the calamity of the global financial crisis, yet some new films in coming months appear uncannily prescient. They outline, in fiction, the circumstances that lead to economic meltdown, and refer to the chieftains and lever-pullers of the market in disparaging terms.
The blockbuster adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen is permeated with the parable of a collapsed capitalist system. And in Tom Twyker’s The International , the nefarious doings of the IBBC bank are explicit: it manipulates arms deals and political coups, and only Clive Owen and Naomi Watts can halt it.
Truth is inevitably more startling than fiction, however, and that’s where the documentary makers step in.
Fahrenheit 9/ 11 director Michael Moore is in the middle of producing a film exploring what he calls ‘‘ the biggest swindle in American history’’.
This month, he made a request on his website ‘‘ for a few brave people who work on Wall Street or in the financial industry’’ to share what they know and ‘‘ participate in telling the greatest crime story ever told’’. He’s obviously not starting from a point of objectivity.
Patrick Creadon’s new documentary, I. O. U. S. A, is objective. And alarming. It assesses the causes and potential liability of the US national debt.
‘‘ I think our movie is a very honest and very accurate snapshot of what’s happening to not only our country but a lot of countries around the world,’’ Creadon says.
‘‘ Australia and a lot of countries in Western civilisation, if you will, that have been wealthy for a long time, their citizens don’t understand how the finances of their countries work. And to try an analogy, if you grow up in a wealthy family, you don’t value money the way poor people do.’’
The times, in one respect, have overtaken Creadon’s film and he is contemplating adding postscripts to another version or supplementing it with short films or ‘‘ webisodes’’.
The global financial crisis and meltdown of financial institutions mean governments will continue to run budget deficits in the short term, though, so I. O. U. S. A loses none of its punch ( America’s national debt exceeded $ US10 trillion late last year).
‘‘ Our film is a great way to get a crash course on this topic,’’ Creadon says. It is also ‘‘ way, way more entertaining than people think it will be’’. Creadon’s crisp use of graphics and likable talking heads turn the dry financial pages and numbing rows of zeroes into a palatable and meaningful lesson.
He has form, having previously directed, cowritten and produced with Christine O’Malley the joyous documentary Wordplay , about The New York Times crossword puzzle.
‘‘ We used the success of Wordplay to tell a story that hopefully would try to do a lot of good,’’ he says. ‘‘ We would not have tried I. O. U. S. A first, let’s put it that way.’’
Macroeconomics can seem daunting and the downturn has left many people feeling vulnerable, but I. O. U. S. A is both entertaining and empowering.
As Creadon sees it, Americans didn’t have a gun pointed at their head to take on more debt and borrow more than they could afford.
‘‘ As much as it’s easy to blame [ former US Federal Reserve Board chairman] Alan Greenspan and George W. Bush and the people who’ve been running the country for a long time, there’s a lot of blame that should go around on an individual level,’’ he says.
‘‘ So many people thought they were millionaires and woke up one day and realised that they weren’t: they were only borrowing like millionaires. It’s a very frightening story but at the same time I find it’s very empowering, too, because I think the more people who understand the basics of this story, the more they’re going to protect their own selves, which is a big part of being safe and secure in the bigger picture.’’
I. O. U. S. A follows Robert Bixby, director of the Concord Coalition, and David Walker, former US comptroller-general, as they travel the US alerting communities to the potential calamity of national debt. They’re not hysterical, merely calm and convincing; they saw a financial conflagration coming but not of this scale.
When Creadon began making the film in 2007, people asked ‘ Why bother?’: the Dow Jones Index was flying, China and India were booming, economic growth looked solid.
‘‘ We were telling this story because a lot of smart people looked at the numbers and where things were heading and thought this was unsustainable,’’ Creadon says.
About six months into shooting, the US subprime crisis started to become apparent.
‘‘ When we were making the film, I kept having this vision of the American economy being this giant ocean liner that is very hard to turn,’’ Creadon says. ‘‘ Dave Walker and Bob Bixby knew this big ocean liner was heading towards an iceberg.’’
The consequential collapse wasn’t surprising to them, but instead fascinating.
‘‘ When we started making the film, we thought this was many, many years away but the truth was it was just six months away,’’ Creadon says.
The film was screened at both the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions, has been viewed by more than 60 congressmen and was shortlisted ( though not nominated) for an Academy Award.
The director finds no joy in dire economic predictions fulfilled, but he is optimistic. And, ever the documentary maker, he says that he gained much personal satisfaction from learning and informing.
‘‘ It was fascinating telling the story when we did,’’ he says. ‘‘ I felt like I had a front-row seat to the biggest story of my generation.’’
I. O. U. S. A
Accurate snapshot’: Director Patrick Creadon