David against Goliath
by Fabien Lemercier
- A highly original, moving and enlightening documentary about the subprime crisis, shot in the US by Swiss director Jean-Stéphane Bron and unveiled in the Cannes Directors' Fortnight
The setting is Ohio, winter 2008-2009. A total of 20,000 families have been evicted and the poor neighbourhoods of East Cleveland are full of empty, boarded-up houses: the storm of the subprime financial crisis has struck. Focusing his camera on the United States, Swiss director Jean-Stéphane Bron delves into the heart of this issue in his highly original, moving and informative documentary Cleveland Versus Wall Street [+see also:
interview: Jean-Stéphane Bron
film profile], which got a rousing reception from audience in the Directors’ Fortnight at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival.
Demonstrating the growing overlap between documentary and fiction, the director stages a mock trial, the one Josh Cohen’s Cleveland law firm wanted, in vain, to bring against the 21 Wall Street banks that he considers responsible for the property seizures that have devastated their city. Playing themselves, seven witnesses take the stand, heard by eight common jurors and lawyer Keith Fisher, who has been working for Wall Street for a long time and defends a financial system whose abuses have caused a global crisis.
"Very few people really understood this subprime story. I wanted to make it understandable”, explained Bron, who also seized “the opportunity to revisit the trial film genre, where the forces of good and evil confront each other in a classic scenario.” This double gamble is brilliantly pulled off in a documentary that works almost like a thriller right up to the verdict and gives viewers breathing space outside the courtroom with short interviews and beautiful shots of Cleveland in the snow.
The intelligence and strength of Cleveland Versus Wall Street lies in its judicious choice of characters, who gradually shed light on the chain of responsibility for the crisis. From the guilty eviction squad sheriff to two evicted residents talking about the downward spiral of this type of credit (“a bloke came banging on the window”), the director first of all sets out the human dimension of the problem. Then he broadens the film’s scope with a former mortgage broker who reveals the shady practices of the profession and a city councillor who explains the serious social and financial consequences for Cleveland.
Finally, the creator of a software programme sold to banks to help transform mortgages into financial stocks expresses his regret ("I enabled a privileged few to exploit the credulity of the masses") and reveals that banking profits from the subprimes were 100 times higher than those from ordinary loans.
All these accounts are fiercely contradicted by the banks’ lawyer, who believes it is just a case of tragic mistakes and human excesses and not the fault of a system. This defence is supported by the final testimony given by a former White House adviser, a staunch partisan of the benefits of deregulation, before the jury deliberates and returns its verdict in this new version of the David and Goliath legend.
Piloted by Switzerland (51% investment) and France (49%), Cleveland Versus Wall Street was produced by Paris-based Les Films Pelléas and Saga Production in co-production with Arte France Cinéma, Jouror Productions and TSR, and with backing from the OFC and France’s National Film and Moving Image Centre (CNC). International sales are being handled by Films Distribution.
(Translated from French)