How can cinema reflect and explain the complexities of the 2008 economic crisis, asks Emma Baus. Three films presented at Cannes this year may answer the question in totally different ways. A fiction blockbuster like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps; a talking head documentary like Inside Job, and a mock trial featuring real witnesses, lawyers and judge: Cleveland versus Wall Street.

Emma Baus
Emma Baus is a documentary filmmaker living in Paris, France, working as a wildlife documentary director.

Each year in Cannes, despite the crowd, the hours in line and the fake glittering starlets there is a movie that justifies it all. This year for me it was Cleveland versus Wall Street by Jean-Stéphane Bron: a sharp look, through incredibly smart directing, at the many home foreclosures brought about by the subprime crisis.

The documentary begins with views of abandoned houses in Cleveland’s suburbs and the determination of the city’s activists to sue those responsible: Wall Street. When the director learned that the lawyer Josh Cohen had actually filed a suit against 21 Wall Street banks, Jean-Stéphane Bron decided that this trial would be his next documentary for the big screen. He secured the budget in his native Switzerland and in France with Canal Plus, but while he was getting ready to shoot, reality took another path. Wall Street lawyers successfully blocked all attempts to bring the banks to trial.

During the Q&A post-screening at Directors’ Fortnight, Jean-Stéphane Bron talked of the moment when he learned the trial would not go ahead. He stayed in his hotel room for a few days and finally decided that this was his chance
to let cinema happen. Instead of following the real trial, he had to invent it by choosing the best characters from the real world to tell the story. Every witness was selected because of his/her personal experience with sub-primes but their photogenic appeal was also a factor. The film was shot in three weeks but preparations took three years. The result: a beautifully smooth film presenting rather dry content.

The two other films shown as part of the Cannes Official Selection and exploring the 2008 economic crisis seem complementary but failed to achieve such intensity. But let’s begin with the first to be screened on the French Riviera, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. In this sequel of Wall Street from 1987, Gordon Gekko is back in NYC in 2008, just before the global financial meltdown. After serving years in jail he now lectures on his experiences to economics students. “I once said, greed is good, now it seems it’s legal”. Meeting his future sonin-law, a successful trader, gives him a chance to make up with his daughter – and to get back to business while Wall Street collapses.

Inside Job
Inside Job

The problem is that the 2008 economic crisis is just a setting for the movie. Name-dropping terms such as leverage dept, securitization, mortgage backed securities that “only 75 people in the world understand” as Gekko says, doesn’t really help. On the contrary, it reinforces the feeling that we poor wretches will never understand anything about finance, so why bother? Let’s just leave the bankers, the real grown-ups, to fix things while we look the other way. The movie is for the most part a Hollywood blockbuster featuring a cute girl who cries every five minutes while the boys ride around on big motorcycles. It’s only when read at a more symbolic level that Oliver Stone’s movie becomes relevant. Gekko loves speculation so much that he steals millions from his daughter. Are the bankers of Wall Street prepared to ravage the world their children will live in?

Screened the very next morning, the documentary Inside Job, by Charles Ferguson, is really helpful in terms of understanding “how did it happen?” In a very instructive way, the director goes step by step through all the regulation decisions that led up to the global crisis. He convokes dozens of economists, bankers, traders, lobbyists, journalists, and politicians in order to prove conclusively that 2008 was no accident: just like every robbery (and good film), it took years of preparation.

The documentary is a classic mix of talking-heads interviews, archival footage and animated graphics, but the point comes across loud and clear and this is quite fascinating. So it is actually possible to understand what a Credit Default Swap is? And how it can lead to the rich stealing trillions and the poor being thrown out of their homes? This documentary should be shown in every school around the world, starting with the US of course, to make everyone realise that the bankers are responsible for the biggest robbery of all time – and nobody’s going to jail.

But such flagrant amorality could end in the future. Jean-Stéphane Bron’s trial is a mock one, since the case is still being investigated. The policeman in charge of evictions; the broker, an ex-drug dealer, providing predatory loans to his former clients; the computer specialist inventing software to manage subprime, risky loans; the families living in tents after foreclosure – all of them may well meet again in court. In Cleveland versus Wall Street, the City loses the case. Let’s hope that reality turns out otherwise.

The first, a popular fiction film to raise questions, then a documentary to answer them in an educational way, and finally a real cinema documentary to embody the economy through vibrant human beings – they all find their own form. But what may have been even more interesting would be to have seen Gekko’s brothers walking the streets of Cleveland – to understand that behind their incredible bonuses there are broken lives.


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