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VIFF Docs Follow the Money


By Robert Alstead - Posted on 05 October 2009

The implosion of the U.S. housing bubble last year, and the subsequent fallout, is the subject of several documentaries at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival (1-16 October). Part of a finance related strand entitled Follow The Money, the docs try to untangle the complex financial web behind the sub-prime disaster

that led to bank collapses, an $800 bn federal bailout package, and hardship for the families who found themselves unable to keep up with payments on their houses.

One strikingly consistent theme in these money docs is how quickly the rot sets when these financial products “go bad”. This is not just about individuals or families hurting. When a neighbourhood starts experiencing a spate of foreclosures the disintegration spreads quickly.

American Casino maps the the mortgage meltdown from the Wall Street financiers, following the subprime “river of money” to a black neighbourhood in Baltimore where a social worker, a teacher, and a minister are in the process of losing their homes. It moves from the sad to the surreal as we follow a local government worker to a foreclosure wasteland in surburban Riverside, California where abandoned houses are targetted for grow-ups and crack dens. Stagnant swimming pools, filled with playground equipment and household debris, have becoming breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

The 65 minute We All Fall Down written and produced by former financier Kevin Stocklin, although more straightforward television fare, is similar in its treatment of the subject. It lays out in authoritative and accessible terms the origins of the problem and meets the low-income families hurt when the house of cards collapsed.

As the title suggests Around the World with Joseph Stiglitz: Perils and Promises of Globalization expands the focus, as the renowned economist parallels the decrepid state of his once thriving hometown of Gary, Indiana – where the demise of the steel industry was accompanied by a 40% population exodus – to other places around the world negatively impacted by free-market globalization's “race to the bottom”.

The wide-ranging doc highlights the problems with western agricultural subsidies from the point of view of Indian farmers and looks at how the “natural resources curse” impoverishes the lives of indigenous people whether they are Kalahari bushmen or Equadorian farmers.

Stiglitz's prescription includes better regulation of markets and a level playing field in the marketplace. The doc is theoretical, so may prove too dry with all its talking heads for some. Stiglitz is also a little too in awe of China's economic model for my liking, but this is a stimulating essay on the world we live in.

The September Issue is an odd doc, more like an elaborate promo for Vogue magazine as it puts together its fattest Fall glossy. Reportedly a profile of the icy editor Ann Wintour (famously fictionalised in The Devil Wears Prada) in its 90 minutes it manages to tell us virtually nothing about the inner workings of the woman who is credited with single-handedly making fur fashionable again.

In The Great Contemporary Art Bubble, UK art correspondent Ben Lewis catches the market as it peaks. The sums paid for contemporary art – tens of millions of dollars – boggle the mind. Especially when you consider that much contemporary art is (a) not that good (b) becoming mass produced.

Bouncing between London, New York and elsewhere, Lewis reveals how limited regulation of the art market has also made it rife for manipulation as well offering attractive tax loopholes for the super rich.

Artfully shot, with sufficient insider information from journos, artists and one or two collectors prepared to open up on camera – he offers a glimpse into this secretive and rarified society. Many questions are left unanswered, but my main quibble is that the tempo and structure of the 90 minute doc is too geared to television.

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Chevron Texaco's culpability in the “Amazon Chernobyl” of Equador is beginning to come to light. Stiglitz (above) visits one of the farmers whose livelihood and health has been destroyed as his water supply has turned to oily sludge. In the Amnesty International Film Festival, showing in Vancouver next month, The Blood of Kouan Kouan (64 min, 2008) and Justicia Now (31 mins, 2007) hone in on the poisoning of one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world.

Back at VIFF, we also have Joe Berlinger's compelling documentary Crude (2009) covering the David versus Goliath legal battle between indigenous people in Equador and one of the richest corporations on the planet bent on outmaneuvering its opponents with money, time, and spin.

The filmmakers rigorously reported coverage includes several key Chevron spokespeople – mostly corporate lawyers, but also an unconvincing environmental spokesperson – who seem to grasp at straws in their defence. The crux of its defence is that the state run Petroecuador, that took over oil drilling operations from Chevron Texaco after 1992, is responsible for much of the pollution.

As the young, native lawyer Pablo Fajardo who heads the prosecution says, expensive lawyers can't hide the bare facts - in this case huge, thick, oily sludge pits - of which we are told there are around 1,000 that were not remediated by Chevron in the region.

The case continues with Chevron inching closer to the largest environmental damages fine (a $27 billion) in history.

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