Going back to basics in order to understand economic mechanisms is a laudable intention, and one that director Carmen Losmann tackles with vigour, humour and a genuine sense of curiosity in her feature-length doc Oeconomia.
But when the axiomatic principles on which the creation of capital are based turn out to be illogical and (at times) plain bonkers, Losmann’s frustrations are, at times, palpable.
The banking system doesn’t need real money to issue credit, we are told in her film, rather it creates money by issuing credit. Entrepreneurial activity therefore can only work on the back of taking loans. Which means that the economy can only grow when more and more debts is accrued. And when these debts are paid off, more credit will be issued to encourage more entrepreneurial activity for even more debt to build.
The debtor is therefore the key cog in the financial system. “It doesn’t need to be logical, just to carry on working,” says an asset manager in the film, whose company manages $1.8 trillion, seeing an annual return of 5% which equates to $94 billion.
“When I finished my last feature-length documentary Work Hard Play Hard (2012) I ended up with one basic question: why do companies always have to generate profits, and why do they permanently want to boost their output and sales? Additional to these questions, the financial crisis in 2008/2009 had happened, and I was wondering why nearly none of the economic experts had predicted this crisis…So I started with a research on how capitalism works.”
In the film, it seems patently obvious that the financial world is also one of grotesque privilege, with little to boast of by way of gender and ethnic diversity.
“I was thinking of the song ‘This is a man’s world’ while shooting this documentary,” Losmann points out. “This gender gap and the situation that men are still are occupying the important and higher positions in our society wasn’t something new for me. I didn’t choose my male interview partners deliberately – it was just that all senior positions I wanted to talk to were occupied by men. I tried to treat this fact as a sort of sub-topic which goes through the film without being mentioned explicitly.”
Was Losmann influenced by other films (not necessarily docs) that set out to explain the complexities evident within the world of finance? Semi-fictionalised features such as The Big Short or classic works such as Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room?
“In order to understand our economic system that has been producing rising growth, debt and an increasing concentration of wealth, I rather read books or listened to talks than watching other films,” she answers.
“According to aesthetic and dramaturgical questions – which should be the adequate visual form and language of my documentary? I was definitely influenced by other films, but not necessarily films dealing with the financial system. Instead I took inspiration from many [other] films, for example the documentaries of (German filmmakers) Lutz Dammbeck, Harun Farocki or Helke Sander.”