When Bubbles Burst
Those seeking deeper understanding of the planet’s shaky economic and financial condition should watch Hans Petter Moland’s When Bubbles Burst. The main subject of this Norwegian documentary is the relationship between finance and what economists call the real economy, and how unleashing finance to grow at the expense of the real economy—to allow a parasite, essentially, to overtake its host—leads inexorably to greater economic suffering and environmental degradation. The film revolves around the tragic story of a small town in Norway whose elected officials were persuaded by financial consultants, at the height of the stock boom, to invest in Citibank’s mortgage-backed securities, products that became worthless with the crash of the global casino in 2008. We follow two representatives of the formerly wealthy town as they journey overseas to New York and Detroit in order to investigate causes and effects. Along the way we hear many voices of reason, including those of Joseph Stiglitz, Michael Lewis, and the inspirational Carlota Perez. Perhaps most valuable is the film’s long view of financial-economic history and the cogent policy discussion it offers (hint: tight regulation of finance, public investment in green industry). If Inside Job left you feeling like you wanted more intellectually, When Bubbles Burst will satisfy that thirst.
We’re Not Broke
Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes have put together a well-researched and powerful new documentary about a crucial but largely ignored piece of the national economic puzzle: Most large American corporations—via international tax havens, lobbying, and the exploitation of loopholes in corporate law—pay nothing in federal taxes, and many even receive large refunds from the IRS. In addition to playing a key role in the slashing of public spending on things like teachers, police, and firefighters, the special coddling of the corporate giants by the federal government puts small businesses—which have no lobbyists or teams of corporate lawyers—at a distinct competitive disadvantage. At a time when the necessities of economic belt-tightening and faith in the so-called “free-market” are still considered conventional wisdom, We’re Not Broke rationally and competently dismantles political economic myth. It also provides a helpful look into the grassroots activism raising awareness about corporate tax-dodging since even before the takeover of Zuccotti Park by Occupy Wall Street. If the film’s exposition of the problem unfolds without fanfare, the images of massive crowds in Times Square demanding an end to corporate rule over national politics still bring chills. Will the public keep up the pressure? [Disclosure: I appear briefly in this film.]
David Redmon and Ashley Sabin (the directors of the excellent Girl Model) inform us at the end of Downeast that 132,000 factories have closed in the U.S. since 2001, resulting in a loss of 6 million jobs. This film presents the story of one of those factories: A sardine cannery with 128 employees in small town Maine that closed in 2010. Enter Antonio Bussone, an Italian immigrant and small businessman who aims to take over the space, convert it into a lobster meat cannery, and restore jobs for the city’s elderly, impoverished residents. The town is eligible for federal stimulus money, but the city council—whose top official owns a competing business—coldly forgoes its approval. The film follows Bussone and several of the town’s unemployed 70somethings as they desperately try to turn things around despite the lack of local government support. Things actually start looking up, that is until business begins to get personal in the meanest way. Bussone’s efforts start to resemble the steaming, rotting piles of lobster shells the old ladies mechanically shuck and discard each day. Bussone’s bank ultimately freezes his accounts and seizes his assets, leading to the shuttering of the plant for the second time in a matter of months. The most poignant moment of the film has to be watching the exhausted ladies at the end of their shift speculate on what a lobster might or might not feel as its life is being taken.
Big Boys Gone Bananas
A compelling study in the ongoing megabattle between corporate public relations and the search for truth, starring an enormous American multinational and a muckraking Swedish film director. Big Boys Gone Bananas* exposes the ruthless machinations of the PR industry and goes a long way towards explaining how the public’s perceptions of economic realities are deliberately distorted by corporate professionals. It begins with director Frederik Gertten—who also made the 2009 investigative documentary Bananas*, about pesticides and the health problems of banana workers in Nicaragua—receiving a cease and desist letter from the Dole Food Company before his film’s premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. From there we witness some of the best of corporate intimidation, with targets including Gertten’s partners, film festival managers, journalists, the Swedish ambassador, and some incredulous members of the Swedish parliament. This is a film about systemic manipulation of information by the most dominant institutions in democratic society—a freedom of speech drama between the little guy and the largest fruit and vegetable company in the world.