Next stop perdi­tion

Some­times mak­ing a doc­u­men­tary is all in the tim­ing, writes Michael Bodey

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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