Monday, July 30, 2012

Forces Of Crushing Debt

Now that Dick Cheney has admitted that choosing Sarah Palin as John McCain's 2008 Vice-Presidential nominee was "a mistake," is it fair to remind people of his insistence that "deficits don't matter"? Since 2008 (when Wall Street did its aggressive best to loot the United States Treasury while George W. Bush was still in the Oval Office), it has become clear that debt means different things to different people.
  • For some, debt is a tool that can be leveraged toward amassing greater wealth. 
  • For others, it is a curse that brings dishonor upon not only them, but upon their family as well.
  • For some, debt is a line item on a balance sheet.
  • For others, it is a death sentence.
During the recent 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival it was interesting to note a series of films about foreign farmers who had been driven to suicide by their failure to pay off their debts. Watching how wealthy Americans handle debt (onscreen and onstage) only reaffirms that the system is rigged to benefit the superwealthy who live in an alternate universe that is very much of their own making.

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John Shank’s feature film, Last Winter, follows the plight of a handsome young man who struggles to preserve his family’s heritage and his way of life as an independent farmer. Unable to compete with larger economic forces that are driving Belgium's small farmers out of business, Johann (Vincent Rottiers) is too stubborn to let go of his macho pride. As Shank explains in his director's note:
“Johann is a man bearing two different heritages on his shoulders: one of them material, the other spiritual. Both heritages are embodied in the same elements, the same gestures and the same places, deeply rooted in the realities of the rural life that bring immense joy to Johann but, at the same time, wear him out. Apart from his belonging to a long line of farmers and a close knit rural community, Johann feels bound to the vaster and larger natural universe that surrounds him. In this vaster universe, he feels needed. He has a purpose. But what is to become of this man's life, of his spiritual existence, if the objects and elements, gestures and rituals that carry him, that seem to be his support, are taken away?

Vincent Rottiers as Johann

Johann is gradually forced to fight harder and harder to preserve his heritage, concealing his difficulties from those who surround him, trying to cling to the world slipping away from beneath his feet, and feeling the elements of his own personal mythology begin to fall to pieces. His inability to let go of his roots plunges him into a violent uprooting, far more violent than the pain caused by material loss of his childhood home and the disappearance of the only world he has ever known. His spiritual existence is slowly being smothered.”
In his youth, Johann had a habit of going for long walks in the forest and not coming home for days at a time. Unfortunately, his love for the land (coupled with his determination to live the life of an independent farmer) prove to be his undoing as the forces of international trade triumph over tradition.


Much of Last Winter’s drama is to be found in its lonely vistas, silent looks of pleading, the cold power of winter, and the desolate frozen Belgian countryside. Alas, this is yet another film about independent farmers going bankrupt and committing suicide in various parts of the world.


Other than scenes in which Johann is meeting with the farmers' co-op or trying to get a loan from someone, Shank’s film is lean on dialogue. As the filmmaker explains:
“I want to embody this story in few words and simple gestures. I want to embody this story in the rising of the very first light of day and the dawning of night. In the coming of winter and its first flakes of snow. In the face of a young man and the relentless work of his hands and body. In the heavy drops of rain slapping faces. In the body of a man carrying the weight of his sister in his arms. In a man hiding in bushes, watching his home and his land from afar. I want to embody this story in the turning off of a bedside light, when the body of a loved one dissolves into darkness.”
Visually rich, Last Winter follows Johann as he begins to isolate himself from friends and fellow farmers until the time arrives for him to take that long final walk into the frozen forest from which there is no return. Here's the trailer:


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The final installation in Micha X. Peled's trilogy of documentaries about the hidden effects of globalization, Bitter Seeds, delves into the mystery of why, every 30 minutes, another cotton farmer in Central India commits suicide by drinking Monsanto pesticide. Whereas cotton farmers formerly nurtured seeds from the previous year's crop with cow dung (a natural fertilizer), Monsanto's genetically modified seeds have taken over the market and forced many farmers into bankruptcy.


Bitter Seeds is a bracing work of documentary journalism that shines a light on class warfare within an emerging superpower. Introduced to India's farmers in 2002, Monsanto's new genetically-modified seeds are 3-4 times as expensive as hybrid seeds, require costly fertilizer, pesticide, more water, and rarely produce their advertised yields. Farmers who cannot get a bank loan are forced to work with illegal moneylenders. Because they lack modern irrigation, they must depend on the local weather to provide water for their crops.

When their crops lack sufficient water (or succumb to infestations of mealybug), India's farmers often lose their land to moneylenders who heap insult on injury by charging outrageous interest rates on their loans. Meled's story line follows the efforts of an 18-year-old woman whose father committed suicide. Manjusha's goal is to become a journalist so that she can write about what is causing so many farmers to commit suicide.


Shot in the Vidarbha region of the state of Maharashtra in India (where most farmers are cotton growers), Peled's heart-rending documentary shows farmers caught in a web of debt, ignorance, and shame who can find no escape from their troubles other than death. Here's the trailer:


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Over at the EXIT TheatreOpenTab Productions is presenting the West Coast premiere of Enron 2012 by British playwright, Lucy Prebble. Using some superb puppets designed by Miyaka Cochrane, the production has been directed by Ben Euphrat with a fury appropriate to the greedy tale of what happened to "the smartest guys in the room." When her play premiered in London in 2009, Prebble explained that her aim was:
"... to show the theatricality of business and the illusions on which it thrives. For Enron, business became a form of show business. They would hire Cirque du Soleil to perform at company parties. I learned that Jeffrey Skilling used to wake up at 4:00 a.m. thinking of all the pressure on him. I found it easy to relate to that since I used to do exactly the same when I was younger, thinking of all the lies I'd told and fantasies I'd created. Jeffrey Skilling transformed himself from a nerdy geek into the biggest showman of them all. In the opening scene, at an office party, I have Skilling explain the whole process of mark to market in which projected profits are treated as a tangible reality. It's motivated by Skilling's fury at business people who don't understand an accounting system used by all the big Wall Street investment banks. Enron's president had a messianic zeal and believed he could change the world by creating a virtual economy."

"Andy Fastow (Skilling's chief finance officer) was a fan of fantasy films and sci-fi. He gave Enron's shadow companies names like Raptor and Talon -- an idea I seized on so that on-stage raptors become a scary, sinister way of showing how Fastow's ideas spun out of control. When Fastow explains to Skilling how losses can be shifted on to shadow companies, the emotional drive comes from the fact that Fastow is desperate to impress his adored boss. In fact, it almost becomes a love scene between the two men."

When talk turned to deregulating California's energy market, I cringed with the memory of my electricity bill (which is now 40% of what it was when Enron was putting the squeeze on Governor Gray Davis). OpenTab's production features excellent performances by Alex Plant as Jeffrey Skilling, Laurie Burke as Claudia Roe, and an actor named GreyWolf as Ken Lay.

However, the character which travels the greatest dramatic distance is Andy Fastow, who is brilliantly portrayed by Nathan Tucker. As one watches Tucker frantically feeding debt to a trio of brilliantly-designed, screeching puppet raptors, one can't help but admire Prebble's wit and Plant's energetic stage direction.

Andy Fastow (Nathan Tucker) and Jeffrey Skilling (Alex Plante)
go for the money in Enron 2012

When it comes to the theatre's ability to dissect and depict what has caused recent wild swings of financial markets (as well as the global crises of the past two decades), those who had the opportunity to enjoy Bennett Fisher's excellent Hermes will quickly recognize Prebble's play as an excellent companion piece. Enron 2012 continues at the EXIT Theatre through August 17 (click here to order tickets) and is strongly recommended.

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David Siegel (who claims to have played a major role in getting George W. Bush elected President) and his busty wife Jackie were well on their way to building their dream home in Orlando  -- a 90,000 square-foot mansion modeled after the famous Palace at Versailles -- when the the recession wiped out their main source of income (Westgate Resorts and timeshares). Lauren Greenfeld’s fascinating documentary, The Queen of Versailles, looks like a chapter of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous when the wheels come off the rich people’s bus.


Jackie, a boisterous 43-year-old shopaholic mother of seven children, was caught off guard when her 74-year-old husband’s real estate empire took a huge financial hit. Even as she ordered the chauffeur to stop at McDonalds so she could pick up some fries, cutting back on spending was easier said than done.


Much of Greenfeld’s jaw-dropping documentary will seem like red meat to the Occupy Wall Street movement as it examines how the 1% deal with financial setbacks during a recession. From the stuffed carcasses of old pets on display in glass cases to the high-priced tackiness of the Siegel residence, the moment in the film that gets the biggest laugh occurs when, after taking her brood on a commercial flight, Jackie arrives at a regional airport in upstate New York and asks the rental car service agent who her driver will be.


In the midst of the family's ongoing chaos, many strange moments fill the screen:
  • As a severely depressed David sweats out the stock market, he can be seen brooding in his office/den, wanting to be left alone.
  • As house staff are let go and pet care becomes less of a priority, the family must navigate around numerous dog droppings. "I didn't even know we had an iguana," notes one child upon discovering a dead lizard.
  • At one point Jackie worries if the family's downward financial fall might even mean that her kids will have to go to college.
As Greenfield notes:
“In an age of cultural obsession with the rich, chronicled by reality TV (Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills), I wanted to tell a deeper, cinema-verité story of an extraordinarily wealthy family that had the ambitious goal of building the biggest house in America.
David and Jackie Siegel pose in their 26,000 square foot
"starter mansion"for filmmaker Lauren Greenfield
After Jackie invited me to stay in their 26,000 square foot ‘starter mansion' and life started to stray from all of our expectations, I was fortunate that Jackie and David had the courage to stay committed to the project and allow me to document their journey. As two remarkable individuals who had come from rags to riches and weathered many storms, they didn’t fear this one. They understood, on some level, that their journey was a statement about the American Dream and the challenge the crisis posed for that dream.”
The irony, of course, is that in many respects it is Jackie's ebullient personality that helps keep the family functioning, even if no one has strapped an Irish setter atop the limousine. Here's the trailer:

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