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Franco-Swiss documentary tackles US economic woes with a twist

In his new documentary “Cleveland Versus Wall Street”, Swiss director Jean-Stéphane Bron examines the US subprime and housing crises through an unusual lens: the movie stages a trial that pits struggling Midwesterners against Wall Street bankers.


Arriving on the heels of Michael Moore’s cheeky “Capitalism: A Love Story” and ahead of Charles Ferguson’s more rigorously investigative “Inside Job”, a new documentary from a Swiss filmmaker tackles the US economic crisis with a bold and unusual approach.

Jean-Stéphane Bron’s “Cleveland Versus Wall Street” (which screened at Cannes last May and premieres on French screens Wednesday) uses real citizens, lawyers, and a judge in a trial that never happened: the people of Cleveland, Ohio, hit hard by a flailing economy, face off against Wall Street bankers who issued subprime loans blamed for costing residents their homes.

A cast of real-life characters

How did a French-speaking director who claimed in a promotional interview to “know nothing about finance or the economy” end up shooting a mock court case revolving around economic ethics in a struggling Midwestern city? First came a desire to film what he called “capitalism in action”. “I had the feeling that economic forces had taken over all other forces, be they political or ideological”, explained Bron in the interview.

Then he read that people from Cleveland had tried and failed to bring Wall Street banks to court on accusations of liability for damage caused to the city by widespread foreclosures. Bron decided he would give these people a chance to get the justice they were seeking – even if the trial’s outcome would be symbolic only. He recruited witnesses on both sides of the conflict: locals who had to leave their houses, Wall Street bankers who explain the lending practices under scrutiny, US economic specialists, and an ex-drug-dealer-turned-subprime-salesman who earned commission by pulling in buyers from the kind of poor neighbourhoods in which he grew up.

Filling in the legal roles are the Cleveland prosecutor who filed the original suit, an out-of-town defence attorney determined to absolve Wall Street banks of responsibility, a judge, and a diverse jury that looks like a microcosm of US society, with a young African-American single mother sandwiched between an elderly Tea Party activist and a Polish immigrant.

Despite the premise of an orchestrated trial, Bron considers his film to be a documentary. “Nothing was anticipated, written, or rehearsed”, he noted in the press interview. “I heard the testimonies for the first time as we filmed them. And I heard the verdict when we shot the jury deliberations”.

The element of suspense

The director indeed lets the showdown between people displaced by the housing crisis and stand-ins for the American economic system unfold naturally. He never appears onscreen or strikes a tone of personal outrage à la Michael Moore. Nevertheless, Bron’s point of view seems to be carried by a lone figure who observes the proceedings: Barbara Anderson, a local activist whose passionate argument that Wall Street pads its pockets by preying on the underprivileged and undereducated, opens and closes the film. Her presence in “Cleveland versus Wall Street” indicates Bron’s sympathy for people whose bid for a piece of the American dream (owning a nice house) veers toward nightmare.

The fact that the jury entrusted to determine the legacy of the director’s experiment is free to disagree with him – or at least to decide that victims in Cleveland do not necessarily mean villains on Wall Street – is the novel twist here. That element of suspense goes a long way in compensating for the tedium and repetition that characterize even the most heavily edited courtroom trials.

And if none of the arguments or emotions in “Cleveland Versus Wall Street” are new, the fictitious court case enables a Swiss filmmaker to zoom in on a quintessentially American question: how much should individuals be responsible for their own well-being, and to what extent should institutions be held accountable? The jury’s struggle to come up with an appropriate answer gives this slightly dry, rather morally heavy-handed documentary a much-needed jolt of drama and ambiguity.

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