Krakow Film Festival 2024

Making money work for everyone

DEBT / A brilliant, but serious, comic caper with all the style and panache of The Italian Job – and the heart and soul of the best in British social activism.

It is a rare documentary film that has this critic laughing one moment and in tears the next. Dan Edelstyn and Hilary Powell’s superbly entertaining and seriously educational Bank Job is one of the few.

Bank Job is both a powerful social and economic analysis and a rousing – at times hilarious – call to arms for action to tackle Britain’s monstrous levels of personal debt.

In the great tradition of the Chartists, The Levellers, The Tolpuddle Martys – even at a stretch the ordinary men and women of England’s Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 – Dan and Hilary, a married couple with a couple of kids at primary school living in a rather down-at-heel eastern fringe suburb of London – set out to set up a project to write off millions of pounds worth of household debt in their borough.

Five years in the making, Bank Job is the story of an ordinary family with «no experience whatsoever in activism».

Bank Job, a film by Dan Edelstyn, Hilary Powell
Bank Job, a film by Dan Edelstyn, Hilary Powell

3 Acts

A feature-length documentary made in the style of a host of fabulous bank heist movies – with a scattering of tongue-in-cheek references to such entertaining movies as Peter Collinson’s famous The Italian Job and character actor Jason Statham and various Guy Ritchie movies – this is a documentary told in three clear acts, complete with slo-mo sequences giving it all the thrills of a feature film.

Act 1 is the set-up, where Dan – a sympathetic tousled character with something of the court jester about him, dressed in comfortably scruffy jackets, plaid shirts and braces and a head of unruly unbrushed brown hair – jets off to New York to learn more about what debt actually is, how it is created and how a spin-off from the social activism movement Occupy Wall Street has set about buying up medical and university student debt at a discount in order to write it off entirely for thousands of indebted graduates.

It is a crash lesson in the economics of Neo-Liberalism.

Experts including Andrew Ross, author of Creditocracy – and the case for debt refusal ­– a New York University professor and founder member of the Strike Debt movement, explain how since the «Big Bang» of the 1980s when financial markets in the US and UK under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were deregulated, there has been an explosion of easy credit.

That has translated to massive profits for the few (bankers, investors, and fund managers) and crippling debt for many (you, me, and your neighbours).

That has translated to massive profits for the few (bankers, investors, and fund managers) and crippling debt for many (you, me, and your neighbours).

Few people know that debt is packaged up and traded – sold on at a discount by financial institutions keen to monetise their «debt ledger» immediately rather than wait years for borrowers to pay off their loans – or not at all in the case of bad debts. That is notwithstanding the drive by the global financial industry to keep people in debt—credit card companies refer customers that pay off their bill in full each month as «deadbeats». These are people that make no money (or very little) for the issuers. Those who pay off the minimum and end up paying back much larger bills when interest is added are «revolvers». These are the customers the worshippers of mammon prefer.

The harder a package of debt is to recover – debt collectors can hardly recover money from borrowers that go bankrupt or fall into extreme chronic poverty – the bigger the discount as lenders play «pass the parcel» in an effort to claw back some money from the debt they have purchased. Some debts can be purchased for as little as a penny – or even half a penny – in the pound.

Dan learns that for £20,000 (€24,000), he and Hilary can buy more than £1 million in heavily discounted household debt.

Many people don’t understand debt—essentially, in the Neo-Liberal world, money is created by private banks as fresh entries in their bookkeeping entries. In keeping with its heist movie style, Hilary – who goes by the name ‘The Guv’nor’ in the film, notes that 85% of British Members of Parliament have no idea how money is created.

When a financial institution creates a loan – whether to an individual or company – the money is effectively created as an entry on an electronic screen. Once created, that money now ‘exists’ – as a debt owed to the lender by the borrower.

The problem with this kind of easy money (a phrase Scandinavian readers will know from the phenomenally popular Swedish books, movies, and TV streamers Snabba Cash) is just that—it is easy.

Easy to obtain… but hard to pay back.

Bank Job, a film by Dan Edelstyn, Hilary Powell
Bank Job, a film by Dan Edelstyn, Hilary Powell

Pay days

Pay Day Loans from High Street lenders in the UK are offered to people with problematic credit histories who cannot access standard loans at reasonable rates of a few percent above central bank interest rates, are enticed in with easy access loans on APRs (annual percentage rates) that can be as much as 670% or more.

These loans are typically extended to people from working families in poorly paid jobs who struggle to make ends meet by the end of the month. Often, they fall into long-term debt and face all the stress that implies.

As Bank Job picks up the pace, we are treated to black and white sequences in the style of 1960s crime movies – Hilary and Dan arrested and interrogated by the police over the bank heist they are planning – interspersed with the story of how the couple design and implement a plan to raise £40,000 – half to support good local causes in Walthamstow, the London district they live in, and half to buy more than £1 million (€1.2m) in household debt.

Pay Day Loans from High Street lenders in the UK are offered to people with problematic credit histories who cannot access standard loans at reasonable rates…

Act 2 shows us how this engaging couple goes about raising that sum. Artist, Hilary, designs and prints wonderful home-made banknotes, the designs based on four local heroes – the headteacher of their neighbourhood primary school, where government cuts have sliced £100,000 (€120,000) off its budget, equivalent to two full-time teaching jobs; a man who runs a food bank and is considering selling his own house to keep it going; a worker from a community canteen; and the head of a youth club struggling to keep it running.

Finding the job too much slow for one person alone, they turn to the local community and – in a stroke of luck – set up a printing operation in a recently vacated bank on the local high street.

And thus, HSCB (a pun on international bank HSBC) – Hoe Street Central Bank – is born.

Here is the heart and soul of this fabulous film as the community comes together to design, create, print, and market £40,000 worth of local «currency». The finished notes are sold at face value for genuine British banknotes from the old bank, now a new ‘bank’, and community hub. (The notes are not dissimilar to LETS banknotes – Local Exchange Trading System notes used in many parts of the UK to keep money in the local community. In Bristol, for example, «Bristol Pounds» are accepted in many shops, local buses and other services. They are colourful, well-designed physical ‘bank’ notes.)

As word gets out via news stories in The Guardian, New York Times and other media outlets, what begins as a few local sales only explodes to thousands of orders from all over the UK – and around the world. Hordes of people flood the bank, eager to buy the attractively designed ‘fake’ notes. «Will we be in a film?» a little girl from a county well outside London asks her father as they queue in the bank. «I don’t think so,» he says. Of course, Dan and Hilary put that clip in the film.

The couple finds a social enterprise where former debt packers now raise money to buy up debt and lift what can be a suicidal burden from people by paying off – cancelling their debt. As one member of this group remarks, when he rang a woman to tell her that her debt had been entirely paid off, she told him that his call had saved her life: «I’ve been seriously planning my suicide and planned to do it soon,» she told him.

Bank Job, a film by Dan Edelstyn, Hilary Powell
Bank Job, a film by Dan Edelstyn, Hilary Powell

Sobering lessons

In Act 3, Bank Job comes to its logical conclusion—a gold-painted old Transit van is packed full of papers marked «debt» and blown sky-high on wasteland across the river Thames from London’s Docklands – with the towering skyscrapers of the financial institutions of the city’s famous «Square Mile» visible in the distance.

It is a sobering lesson in the tentacles of power in the UK that the Metropolitan Police Film Permission unit tried to prevent this scene from being filmed – accusing the filmmakers of being social and political activists rather than filmmakers.

Finally, the £40,000 raised is distributed, more than a million pounds in debt purchased, and letters sent out to those who will benefit. To protect confidential information, the filmmakers are not allowed to know who has benefited, but they know that their film and social activism has had a definite impact.

The film raises – and notes – wider questions of why it is we organize our society and economy in a way that creates such massive benefit for the few and such massive pain and misery for the many.

Optimistic Productions – Dan and Hilary’s company – is now involved in a new film and social project, Power, to put solar panels on roofs throughout their borough. Bravo!

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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