Debtocracy: good film about the 2011 Greek financial crisis and how it could be solved

Katerina Kitidi and Aris Hatzistefanou, “Debtocracy” (2011)

Made on the cheap, this is a passionate and compelling documentary about the current Greek financial crisis, how it came about, what possible solutions there are to solve it and what the Greek government under Prime Minister George Papandreou should be doing. The film follows a definite narrative strand in which various economists and academics discuss the origins of the Greek debt crisis and how the Eurozone is structured in a way that privileges the economies of the core states such as France and Germany, and works against the interests of the poorer peripheral countries like Greece, Ireland and Portugal; this investigation is followed by an account of what problems the Greek economy faces and how other countries like Argentina and Ecuador have dealt with similar problems. The film concludes with a call to its intended audience (the Greek people, both mainland and diaspora, and the Greek government) to make a decision and take action on the crisis.

The film works animation, including one animated passage on odious debt that could pass as a separate mini-documentary in its own right, together with excerpts from other documentaries into a barebones, straightforward structure that includes interviews and camera shots of colourful street scenes in Athens, Ecuador and Argentina. With a small budget, the film can’t afford to be visually spectacular but the subject matter. the interviewees and the clever use of animated sequences and postcard shots take care of maintaining audience interest. The talking heads are emphatic that most of Greece’s debt should not be blamed on the Greek people or their expectations of the social welfare state; the debt rather is the fault of successive Greek governments imposing an unfair taxation regime on the country that taxes poor people the most but is lenient on companies and wealthy individuals, and at the same time borrowing heavily to fund a welfare state. Many of Greece’s debts are illegal and include bribes and gifts made to politicians by foreign firms like Siemens to gain potentially profitable contracts. Other causes of the Greek debt crisis include privatisation of state companies, Greek government policies, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank advice, and the constant servicing of old debts with new loans, that is, new debt replenishing old debt.

“Debtocracy” makes no claim to be neutral with respect to economics or political theory: it is unabashedly social-democratic in outlook. Kitidi and Hatzistefanou present a point of view and diligently marshal the support and evidence to prove their point. They do not interview anyone who has an alternate view on what went wrong and how to resolve the debt crisis. Interestingly, one historian they interview comments that the only time Greece ever lent anything to anyone was during World War 2 when the country was occupied by Nazi Germany and forced by Hitler’s government to supply German forces with raw materials. As a result of this and an Allied blockade of Greece, during the winter of 1941-2 the Greek people suffered a terrible famine which killed 300,000 in metropolitan Athens alone (Wikipedia). The loan Greece made to Germany in the 1940s was never paid back by that country so it’s a surprise that no-one in the film even suggests Germany should cough up payment of the principal, the interest and the interest upon the interest.

The comparisons with Argentina and Ecuador strike me as a bit peculiar and not quite appropriate: Argentina is a much bigger country in population with a more varied economy and Ecuador relies much more on oil exports and is underdeveloped. Perhaps a better comparison would have been with Iceland which suffered similar problems (and actually defaulted) or other small European countries like Latvia, Hungary and Austria which have their own economic woes. But of course not all my suggested countries have social democratic governments or societies that have a socialist cultural orientation. Cuba perhaps provides the best example of a country that decided to “go it alone” in dealing with the economic problems that arose after the fall of the Soviet Union.

If there’s a major criticism to be made about “Debtocracy”, it’s that the flm makes much of Greece’s victim status vis-a-vis Germany and how Greece has always been compelled to borrow. Nothing is said about the financial contributions of overseas Greek communities to their home towns and villages or about the reasons why the country has always had to borrow money. There is some mention early in the film about Greece being dominated by a very small cliquey political and economic elite drawn from a tiny number of families but the documentary doesn’t dwell on this elite and how it has dominated political culture and influenced the government’s housekeeping attitudes. The role of Greece’s hypocritical trading partners is underplayed: France and Germany insist on Greece meeting its debt obligations and restraining its spending on social welfare yet which countries are trying to force Greece to buy their weapons and military jets? Do they not realise that arming Greece to the teeth is likely to encourage neighbours like Bulgaria, Albania, Israel and Turkey  to collect arms too?

Although aimed specifically at a Greek audience, “Debtocracy” is a watchable film about how small countries can get into economic strife for reasons not always of their own making, and the steps they can take to rectify their situation.