Maybe it all started back in 1772, when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe first began to work on the tragedy of Faust, the supposedly brilliant scholar who sold his soul to the devil for a chance to relive his youth. Even if one considers the modern equivalent -- "I made him an offer he couldn't refuse" -- there is little doubt that, in games of power, one party plans to dominate another by hook or by crook.
In his latest documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, filmmaker Michael Moore doesn't hesitate to describe capitalism as inherently evil. As he interviews Americans whose lives have been ruined by predatory lending, foreclosures, or simply being powerless pawns in the banking industry's multinational gambling schemes, audiences see human faces put on the victims of globalization.
While microcredit programs like Kiva have helped many to break out of poverty and become successful entrepreneurs, appealing to people's baser instincts by tempting them with mortgages they can't afford, credit default swaps, or "irrationally exuberant" lines of credit, is an easy way to trap consumers in a spiral of debt. Watch carefully as John Hodgeman schools Jon Stewart in the ways of Wall Street.
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Whether one chooses to think in terms of macroeconomics or microeconomics, the use of debt as a financial weapon is becoming clearer in terms of how we perceive the global economy. Whereas 2003's The Corporation did a superb job of showing the ruthlessness with which corporate interests are willing to destroy lives in their pursuit of profits, two new documentaries do a superb job of showing how financial power is used to put the squeeze on impoverished workers as well as political leaders.
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Soon to be screened at the Seventh Annual 3rd I San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival is a documentary of deceptive visual beauty. I was particularly interested in seeing Iron Eaters because India and Bangladesh have become the final destinations for so many ocean liners and old ships whose final voyages deliver them into the hands of the ship breakers who sell their steel for scrap.
It is to writer/director Shaheen Rill-Diaz's great credit that his film not only exposes the brutal effects of capitalism on some of Bangladesh's poorest workers but that, despite exposing such financial exploitation, so much of his footage is a gorgeous visual treat.
The beaches of Chittagong in the Bay of Bengal are where many container ships and oil tankers are broken down by Bangladeshi iron workers who have been forced from their homelands in the north during seasonal floods. Their work requires them to wade through mud that reaches as high as their calves as they pull the heavy cables that will drag the ships closer to the beach.
Often working under conditions that would make an OSHA inspector vomit with disgust, they are sometimes required to carry iron plate on their shoulders when it is still hot from the application of blow torches. Known as the Lohakhor (iron eaters), the men work long, unforgiving hours from which some never recover.
Kholil and Gadu are two peasants from northern Bangladesh who recruit many of their relatives to work for Chittagong's PHP (Peace, Happiness, and Prosperity) Group when the flooding from the rainy season causes famine in the north. Although they are lured to Chittagong with advance payments and promises of easy loans, by the time they leave, they may not even have enough money for the trip home. Shaheen Dill-Riaz lived with the workers for five months in 2005 while filming them at work. As he explains:
"I've known the place where the ships are dismantled since I was a child. It's not far from my home village. We had heard lots of stories about the huge ships and the serious industrial accidents, but those of us on the outside knew next to nothing about the real working conditions in the yards because the workers themselves never talked about what they experienced there. I wanted to know who these people are, who come to us in the south and work for months on starvation wagesGetting shooting permission was hard enough. The most important point I had to get across to those in charge was that I was not making a film about environmental pollution (that was their biggest worry). While we were filming, we were faced with the same problems the workers themselves had. At the end of the day, we were observing extremely difficult, and even life-threatening working conditions. We stood barefoot with the workers in the mud, balanced on rotting beams, and went down into the extremely dangerous innards of the ships. I still can't understand to this day why nothing happened to us. Were we really so careful? Or were we just simply lucky."Instead of forcing workers into debt, those responsible should admit that there is something essentially wrong here. Anyone who has seen these people at work knows that they are paid far too little and that the dangers they face every day could easily be avoided. There are technical solutions that could reduce the life-threatening risks the workers are exposed to -- and there are enough experts who have already approached the yard owners with suggestions for improvement, but these are continually ignored.We have all obviously resigned ourselves to the fact that our lives are determined by the stock exchanges. So we shouldn't be surprised by the results. For me, Ironeaters shows the consequences of this global attitude.With this film I wanted to immerse myself in a world which had been closed to me for a very long time. I was curious and I had expected to discover something new. The unbelievable working conditions that the film shows were not the greatest surprise for me but rather the administrative structure, which drives the people into a deadly debt trap. Even more appalling for me was the realization that the attitude of the exploitative system is founded on the basic elements of the economic system in which we all live. Ironeaters shows just how far this can go."
Desperate to earn money with which to support their families between rice harvests, these men work for a pittance. Because they are forced to purchase their food from grocery stores that cooperating with the shipyard owners (who happily extend their workers' credit to a point where the laborers are performing backbreaking work for almost no income), these men become trapped in a stifling debt spiral.
Don't be fooled by some of the arresting images or moments of exquisite cinematography. Despite the protests of the ship breaker's management (who are noticeably well fed and are never seen doing any physical labor), this depiction of capitalism at work is not the slightest bit pretty. Here's the trailer:
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Back in 2001, as Americans reeled from the shock of the attacks on the World Trade Center, many were stunned to hear Osama bin Laden claim that his ultimate goal was to destroy the American economy by driving the United States into bankruptcy.
"Why do they hate us?" cried those who thought their beloved country could do no wrong. One of the films shown at the Eighth San Francisco Documentary Festival offers a cogent explanation of why many foreign nations dread and resent the United States. It also gives a disturbing insight into why the Bush administration felt it necessary to invade Iraq.
In Apology of an Economic Hitman, author John Perkins (whose 2004 book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, details the subversive responsibilities of his former profession), goes into great detail about exactly how corporate interests work with the United States government to force developing nations deeply into debt, to the point where it is impossible for them to repay the loans put forth by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the United States Agency for International Development. In his prime, Perkins was involved in the kind of espionage activities that used fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections,
payoffs, extortion, military coups, and murder as part of an undercover effort to create a global American empire following World War II.
This documentary includes several fascinating sequences that, for narrative effect, have been crafted in the style of film noir while exposing some of the financial mechanisms used to keep most of the world in poverty. In his director's note, Stelios Koul explains:
"‘That is a film noir,’ I told myself when I first took knowledge of the economic hit man story. Α sexy femme fatale, corruption, assassinations, no good guys, secret meetings of the empire’s jackals in rooms full of smoke. And then there was the voice-over narration of a protagonist trapped in an unwanted situation, flashbacks to understand the birth of the economic hit man and flashforwards to the looting of Iraq. From low-key lighting and Venetian blinds to Dutch angles, I used the techniques of film noir to make a documentary telling a real story about our present world. Film noir is often described as essentially pessimistic. But the plot line and the final sequences of the film, when the protagonist apologizes in front of the Ecuadorian people for his actions, give way to optimism: in a world full of cynicism and wars, there is always room for redemption and hope."
In 2007, Perkins published The Secret History of American Empire: Economic Hit Men, Jackals and the Truth About Global Corruption. His latest book, Hoodwinked: An Economic Hit Man Reveals Why The World Financial Markets Imploded -- And What We Need To Do To Remake Them is due out in November.
After a long internal struggle between his guilt and his fear of the potential repercussions of becoming a whistleblower (Perkins was offered huge sums of money during his career just to keep his mouth shut), he has tried to set the record straight by exposing the kind of economic sabotage America has inflicted on developing countries. Not only does the film contain some surprising old car commercials and a powerful piece of propaganda from Standard Oil), it unmasks some of the really dirty deeds that have been done in the name of democracy. In an email to the film's director, Perkins wrote:
"I'm deeply impressed -- a very powerful and beautifully done film. I think it will be considered a classic, watched for decades to come by anyone interested in the history of the last half of the 20th century. It tells the story of empire -- and the impact on the entire world -- in a compelling, easily understood way. I was shocked by the magnitude of your production and your commitment. …The file footage of (Ecuador’s ex president) Roldos and (Panama’s ex president) Torrijos brought me to tears. I had never seen most of it before. The way you integrated the Ford Motor Company ads with the Baghdad attack and Robert McNamara is masterful, as were the scenes of poverty interspliced with those of opulence. The Standard Oil movie absolutely blew me away. I am honored to have inspired you and your great crew. You are a master!"
Don't expect to see Perkins appearing on Fox and Friends within your lifetime. The material he exposes is provocative and shocking (even Osama bin Laden has made reference to Perkins' writings). As far as I'm concerned, anyone who clearly and concisely explains why Paul Wolfowitz is such a scumbag deserves to be taken seriously. Here's a clip in which the deceptively laid-back former economic hit man explains how big finance really works:
If there were any real justice in the world, every economist, pundit, and politician would be forced to sit through a triple bill of Apology of an Economic Hitman, Capitalism: A Love Story, and Iron Eaters. Together, these three films form a perfect storm of whistle-blowing economic journalism from brave and perceptive documentarians.