Inside Job: hard-hitting documentary about 2007/08 Global Financial Crisis

Charles Ferguson, “Inside Job” (2010)

 For many people, this incisive documentary on the immediate origins of the 2007 – 08 Global Financial Crisis will prove a real eye-opener into the workings of the various large American investment banks, insurance and other finance corporations all collectively known as “Wall Street” and of the failure of the US government and its agencies to monitor and regulate the industry’s activities. The consequences of the failure of successive US governments from the 1980’s onwards to control Wall Street’s rapacity and excesses are becoming all too apparent as “Inside Job” makes clear: collapsed banks and insurance companies; economic instability resulting in over-caution on lenders’ part, forcing businesses to downsize operations and lay off workers; huge public debts which force government cut-backs in spending on education, medical and social welfare services; increased debt burdens on households; people’s savings and superannuation and pension funds wiped out, among other results. Director Charles Ferguson who also wrote the script and produced the documentary tracks down and interviews a number of bank executives, public officials and economists about aspects of the GFC, and many of the interviewees who appear in “Inside Job” reveal themselves as corrupt or corrupted participants in and beneficiaries of Wall Street’s greed, arrogance and lack of ethics.

The film traces the roots of the GFC to the early 1980’s when the Reagan government began deregulating the banking and finance industry and watered down a number of government acts and regulations that came into force after the Great Depression of the early 1930’s. Even after the collapse of savings and loan associations in late 1980’s which should have been a warning that something was not right in the finance industry, deregulation continued well into the next decade and after the Cold War ended in 1991, a number of physicists and mathematicians entered the finance industry with ideas on playing the stock market like a giant casino, and many creative and convoluted ways of converting mortgage and other types of loans into more lucratvie financial instruments, backed by other weird, wonderful and wacky financial products whose origins were so diverse and complex even for finance industry workers to trace, came into being. Eventually a crisis of trust and confidence developed and spread like a wildfire, undermining large corporations like Bear Stearns, AIG and Lehman Brothers which ended up being taken over by large banking corporations, and the US government under President George W Bush was forced to bail out Wall Street for US$700 billion.

The film’s major strength is its examination of the incestuous links among US government officials and agencies charged with supervising and regulating Wall Street activities, the financial corporations themselves and university academics who basically performed a cheerleading function for the often unethical if not illegal activities of the banks. The interviews with two university academics at Columbia and Harvard Universities are very entertaining in this respect, with the questions hitting a very exposed raw nerve for one economist who challenges the film-maker to make the most of a suddenly shortened interviewing time of three minutes. Other entertaining interviewees include an expensive callgirl and a psychiatrist / therapist both of whose Wall Street clienteles must have overlapped considerably.

Unfortunately the film falls flat with a watery conclusion that Wall Street must be subject again to regulation to avoid repeat crises and leaves it at that. Having exposed the collusion that went on between Wall Street and the White House, Ferguson’s retreat into a call for re-regulation is a huge letdown and disappointment for this particular viewer. A future of re-regulation followed by deregulation followed again by re-regulation can never be a viable solution as long as an “old boys’ network” continues to operate between governments and the financial sector. As long as people forget or refuse to learn the lessons of previous financial crises and continue to believe in political and economic ideologies that prize self-interest, the quick accumulation of wealth at any cost and extreme dog-eat-dog competition (which feeds on fear and encourages a herd mentality and irrational behaviour), the global financial system will remain essentially unstable and prone to crises. The effect of regulation will only soften the more extreme effects of such a system but can’t prevent crises from happening. We need to re-examine our assumptions about our current financial systems, what place they should have in a real economy based on producing goods and services to suit all people, and in particular we need to question the role that money, debt and banks play. Already there are commentators like Ellen Brown (www.ellenbrown.com) and websites like Social Credit (www.bleedingindebt.com) who question the worth of a financial system in which money can be created and start to circulate only if someone asks for a loan and incurs a debt. There need to be better ways to stimulate production of goods and services other than creating debt that attracts interest that accumulates and produces more interest. Islamic financing which prohibits usury and systems based on social credit and ingenious forms of bartering are some alternatives that could be considered.

Apart from a weak ending, “Inside Job” is a thorough hatchet-job on the architects and builders of an elaborate edifice that took years to build but fell apart very quickly with effects on the economy, society and culture in the United States that may still be working (and wrecking) their way through. We may not have seen the full outcomes of the GFC and it may be that its worst effects will be felt by the very poor and most disadvantaged people in American society.

Catfish: a film with a surprising and humbling twist

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, “Catfish” (2010)

Call it a fake documentary, call it a feature film and call it exploitative but this film about a friendship that begins on Facebook, is augmented by Google, Google Earth, Youtube, satnav and cellphones, and ends up in a real place that not even the film-makers anticipated, emotionally as well as physically, is an intriguing investigation into the nature of authenticity, much of which it is thrown back into the film-makers’ faces and those of their audiences. The film divides into two rough halves: in the first half, it focusses on Nev Schulman, a photographer based in New York City who specialises in photographing professional dancers, who is contacted by a young girl called Abby requesting his permission to use one of his photos as a basis for a painting. When Abby posts the result to Nev, Nev is taken aback by the quality of the child’s work and a friendship conducted mostly through Facebook develops from there. As Nev is introduced to and friended by members of Abby’s family, in particular her half-sister Megan Faccio, his brother Ariel and friend Henry sense the Facebook friendships have a story to tell and begin to obsessively document Nev’s relationships with Abby’s family on film. Along the way though, something about the songs Megan posts to Nev via mpegs smells fishy and the trio quickly discovers she is posting other people’s songs as her own. Their senses alerted, the guys begin to discover other things about Abby, her mum Angela Wesselman and Megan that don’t make sense, and the men decide to visit the family.

The film’s second half is located mostly in Ishpeming (Michigan) where Abby and her family live and here Nev, Ariel and Henry discover the truth about Abby, Angela and their relatives, most of all Megan. At this point, the film leaves the realm of genre film – up to now, the film has gleefully included references to horror and suspense, including a drive from Chicago all the way to Michigan in the wee hours of the night to visit an abandoned farm-house, perhaps to provide a frisson to what the film-makers anticipated would be the climax of the film (maybe they’ll find illegal cocaine shipments? discover body parts left behind by a serial killer? stumble onto a secret alien-human DNA fusion experiment jointly funded by the Pentagon and the CIA?), as well as romantic comedy of the “You’ve Got Mail” sort. “Catfish” delves into deeper territory about identity and its fluidity, and how social networking technology gives people from different walks of life the opportunity to create and present fantasies about themselves and their lives as a way of coping with everyday reality. It transpires that (spoiler alert) everything attributed to Abby and Megan in the first half of the film is part of a fantasy life spun by Angela as her way of reconciling her need for a family life and security with the sacrifice of her dream to be a dancer and painter.

Although Nev and his pals find out fairly easily that Abby and Megan aren’t all they were cooked up to be, the fact remains, which Nev admits, that for several months he didn’t bother investigating their bona fides simply because it hadn’t occurred to him to do so, even though astute viewers of “Catfish” would have smelled something pretty strange when Angela starts posting pictures of some of her own paintings along with Abby’s pictures early on in the film. Even after the guys realise that Abby’s family may be lying to Nev, they don’t think about taking anything further until Henry suggests they actually go visit the family. At this point, the film changes dramatically: the film-makers’ obsession with Facebook and other social networking technologies fades and viewers are taken into more emotional and humbling if voyeuristic territory. This says a lot about the problems of social networking: in many aspects, particularly in the world of emotions and psychology, the technology can never really substitute for real life, no matter how real Facebook and other online friendships may seem to people and no matter how closer people, geographically separated, become. At the same time, such dangers are advantageous as Angela discovers for herself: she uses the technology to get a foot-hold in a larger network represented by people like Nev Schulman but, being shy and perhaps afraid that she’s not as “sophisticated” as the folks in New York, she weaves a fantasy life to hook Schulman into supporting her artistic efforts. In this way, she controls the process by which she moves into a milieu and network that she has always yearned to enter on her own terms and at her own pace. The irony is, Angela is perhaps more sophisticated in her use of Facebook and other Internet-based interactive networks to get what she needs and the end credits suggest she manages to achieve at least some if not all her dreams.

Yes, you don’t know if your “friends” are one-to-one cyber-equivalents of real-life people (as opposed to paedophiles impersonating children or men impersonating women) or if 10, 100 or even 1,000 of these friends might be avatars of one person. If social networks and virtual reality websites pose a danger, “Catfish” suggests that the danger is people being too ready to believe that those they meet online are who they claim to be when everybody “knows” that the Internet offers people limitless opportunities to reinvent themselves. For all their hipness and familiarity with modern technology (and we certainly see the Schulmans and Henry messing with their laptops, cellphones and filming equipment a lot), these guys fall victim all too readily to their own emotions and fears. At film’s end, Nev is looking shell-shocked from what he has discovered about Angela and maybe about himself and his own naivety; it’s too easy though to say he should have invested less emotion and feeling into his Facebook romance with Megan. As individuals and as a society, we depend so much on technology to fulfill our immediate physical needs that we have come to see it as solving all our social, political and economic problems and it’s now an extension of our psychological being. As “Catfish” gives viewers no information about Nev’s history of romance prior to meeting Megan on Facebook, we have no way of knowing if Nev has experienced many ups and downs in his love life and if he should just widen his real-life social network, meet more actual girls and get some advice on how to recognise if someone is genuinely interested in him or leading him on. At least he conducts himself with grace and never accuses Angela directly when he confronts her with her lies, so he’s not completely at sea socially.

It would have been more ethical if Nev had simply called Angela’s bluff on Facebook and not gone to see her at home. Again, this points up a limitation about social networking and other interactive technologies such as email and even the old-fashioned facsimile machine: that when you have to confront people about their lies or other “bad” behaviour, it’s better to do it face-to-face than impersonally, even by phone. Also if Nev had told Angela over the phone that he knew she was lying and left the matter at that, she might never have had the breakthrough she yearned for and Nev and the others might not have learned something about themselves and the limitations of social networking. No-one would have been changed by his/her experiences and Angela would probably go hunting through Facebook again to latch onto another hipster photographer who thinks he’s more worldly-wise than he actually is. Who’s to say if the unethical route is not the correct route to follow in situations such as these?

There are several issues raised in “Catfish” which the film, due to its limited scope and resources, isn’t able to deal with in much depth at all. One issue is how do people like Angela reconcile conflicting personal desires and ambitions, and the needs of others dependent on them, in striving for personal fulfilment. The issue affects men and women alike but possibly it’s more pressing for women who desire also to be mothers but find mothering brings with it demands on their time and energy. Related to this is the problem of Angela’s social and economic milieu: her home town of Ishpeming perhaps couldn’t be more removed culturally and financially from that of Nev, Ariel and Henry, and Angela may have perceived the difference as a considerable barrier to gaining a foot-hold in the art world. Ishpeming is an economically depressed town: when Nev and his pals arrive there, they see the main streets are deserted and the large building in the centre of town which supposedly is an art gallery is actually vacant and has been so for four years. If there is any State or Federal government assistance to Ishpeming and to individual families like Angela’s family which includes twin adult step-sons with mental disabilities, the film-makers make no mention of it.

The question of the film’s genre as documentary or not raises the issue of authenticity, not just with the film itself but also its makers and the people who appear in “Catfish”. The events look real enough but the film-makers have imposed a particular linear narrative on them that shapes them and influences viewers to see them in a certain way. Don’t rule out the possibility that the events have been edited to conform to this narrative. The narrative gives the events a coherence that viewers can understand. Elements of romantic comedy, horror and suspense thriller have been worked deliberately into the film to tease the audience and hold their attention for what is basically a fairly trite subject: the development and evolution of a relationship through the medium of technology. Ariel Schulman and Joost’s motives for making the film change as they follow Nev’s romance with Megan and this change makes their motives seem even more suspect. At one point in the film, Nev complains about being bullied and manipulated into continuing with the filming even when he wants out so there is a related issue of how authentic the film can be when people are being bullied and events are being shaped to meet a vague agenda. Interestingly, Angela herself manipulates the film-makers and continues to lie even as they force her into admitting her past fibs about Megan. The fact that this manipulation is a two-way street in the second half of “Catfish”, with the sense that the film-makers are losing some control over the “story” as a result, makes this part of the film very interesting. As this manipulation is going on, viewers will find themselves complicit as passive voyeurs; we may not like what Nev, Ariel and Henry are doing to Angela but all the same, we want to know why Angela seems such a compulsive liar that she carries on even after the trio expose her lies and discover she’s deceived her husband too.

The film is likeable and Angela’s “dilemma” can be very moving. Nev is an appealing guy and the approach the film-makers adopted of confronting Angela with her lies in a gentle way that saved face and didn’t embarrass everyone should be lauded. Viewers will likely feel sorry for Angela’s husband who incidentally gives the film its title and perhaps is the most genuine person here. (We don’t learn much about his background and what he does outside the home, not even if he works two or three low-paying jobs, which seems likely in a depressed place like Ishpeming.) Authenticity, encountered through “Catfish”, is a huge multi-faceted monster indeed.

Winter’s Bone: flimsy plot backgrounded by real poverty and catastrophic social problems

Debra Granik, “Winter’s Bone” (2010)

Meet Ree Dolly: she’s a 17-year-old girl caring for her severely depressed mom and two younger siblings, Sonny and Ashlee, on their farm located somewhere in the Ozarks region in the southeast United States. Dad hasn’t been seen for some time and is due to appear in court on charges of illegally making methamphetamine in a backyard lab. One day the sheriff pays a visit and warns Ree that if her father doesn’t appear in court, the family property which also includes a timber-cutting business will be repossessed as Dad had put it up as part of his bail conditions. This forces Ree to set off on an arduous search for her missing father, one that forces her to beg favours of members of her extended family and to navigate and test the limits of her impoverished community’s mores and codes of honour. We discover that nearly everyone is either unemployed or, like Dad, is engaged in cooking and trafficking in methamphetamines, and the whole community has always been suspicious of the police for reasons unexplained but which must go back a long way in the area’s history. This complicates Ree’s task as we learn that people also consider her father a snitch for talking to police and therefore deserves whatever happened to him.

Flimsy plot and crime-noir conventions aside, the film is memorable for the strong performances of Lawrence and John Hawkes and its portrayal of a clannish society wracked by extreme long-term poverty and the associated problems: drug abuse, low school retention rates, teenage pregnancy, violence, distrust of police. Lawrence virtually becomes Ree with minimal or subtle acting; hard to believe she’s never been to drama school. But that may be a plus since drama school might teach students certain methods or techniques that would be out of place in a film like this where a “non-acting” acting style is called for. Contradictions in Ree’s character become credible: she has courage, she is forthright, she is smart and keeps her family together yet she’s suspicious of police and won’t ask them for help, and is sufficiently naive enough to want to enlist in the US army just to get the cash to pay her dad’s bail. Hawkes as meth addict Teardrop also reveals unexpected aspects: initially unpleasant, unpredictable, unhinged and unhelpful, he proves a loyal ally to Rees and gradually assumes a stand-offish role as guardian to her family.

The Ozark mountain community seems familiar and yet unfamiliar in surprising ways: with the men hooked on meth and with little else to do apart from cooking illegal batches of the stuff, the women preoccupied with keeping their families and networks together and policing invisible boundaries between themselves and the men, they’re like what I imagine Mafia family networks or impoverished Australian indigenous desert communities to be. The men do their thing or waste their lives on alcohol, drugs or being sick, the women do all they can to keep family and clan networks intact and functioning, both sexes keep to their specific domains with the women deferring to men in making decisions and outsiders, especially representatives of the law, are regarded with suspicion. It would be easy to caricature and criticise these insular, suspicious mountain people but Granik portrays them in all their contrariness and their culture, where it seems everyone can do almost anything with instinctive ease (chop wood, hunt and skin animals, play a musical instrument, work a farm, cook crank), with sympathy and humanity.

The aspect of this community I was unfamiliar with is the methamphetamine epidemic: before seeing this film, I was simply unaware that crank use was so widespread in the US rural Southeast; in 2003, state police in Indiana alone found 1,260 small-scale lab facilities making meth, up from 6 in 1995 (source: Wikipedia). I had imagined alcohol and narcotics abuse, dealing in illegal weapons and people joining militias and white-power groups would be the main headaches for police. The dangers of making meth, easy enough but requiring the use of toxic, inflammable chemicals in extracting and purifying it, are made all too obvious in “Winter’s Bone”: early on, Ree is called on to inspect the charred remains of a shed that housed a lab where a batch went wrong; dialogue in the scene initially suggests her father was a victim in the accident. The whole area around the shed is poisoned and the community can’t afford to clean up the land and water supply. But while it’s arguable that the environmental damage of the meth epidemic should be the community’s immediate worry, there are other more sinister forces capitalising on the people’s helplessness: the US government, capitalising on the meth addiction to increase its police-state control of the people, and on the area’s poverty to drive young kids like Ree into the US army to fight never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, surely rates as the major threat to the Ozark mountain people’s survival and integrity.

Ree does become older and wiser but her future remains uncertain; the only thing she knows that ensures she still gets out of bed in the morning and away from crank abuse herself is her family’s dependence on her, as she acknowledges to Sonny and Ashlee: “… I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back”. It’s a heartwarming statement that confirms the power of family ties but given Ree’s context, very depressing as well.