An East Bay filmmaker takes another look at U.S. financial woes with 'Heist,' which world premieres at the Mill Valley Film Festival.
It’s a damn shame, frankly, that veteran East Bay filmmaker Donald Goldmacher and longtime collaborator Frances Causey needed to make Heist: Who Stole the American Dream? Their rabble-rousing documentary, which receives its world premiere October 13 and 15 in the Mill Valley Film Festival, catalogs the campaign of the wealthy and the right wing to exploit the U.S. citizenry through the step-by-step expansion of corporate power. This multi-decade strategy encompasses deregulation, attacks on unions, shadowy campaign contributions and Supreme Court rulings, abetted by criminally slanted media coverage. Previous documentaries, including Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Capitalism: A Love Story and Inside Job have exposed some elements and some of the consequences of the class warfare that has scarcely slowed since the Reagan Administration. And yet, incredibly, a large chunk of the public is still unaware of the facts, and the lessons. Heist: Who Stole the American Dream? paints the complete picture, and also suggests some positive steps to reverse the country’s course. Donald Goldmacher kindly responded to our pessimistic and cynical questions by email.
SF360: Will the middle class go the way of the dodo bird?
Donald Goldmacher: The middle class is in serious difficulty at the present time as a result of 40 years of increasing corporate power. But the struggle between working people and their corporate overlords has been an ongoing battle throughout the history of the United States. As one of our experts states in the film, there are two kinds of power in the United States; there is organized money and there is organized people. Though the mass media is not covering the pushback by organized people, it is taking place in various forms, most visibly in Wisconsin earlier this year. They are trying to ignore what is happening right now on the streets of New York in the financial area known as Wall Street.
SF360: Are the corporations destined to be our masters now and forever? And what does that portend for our democracy?
Goldmacher: Our democracy has been eroding for the past 30 years as a result of the corruption of the Congress and the presidency, as well as an increasingly right-wing Supreme Court that has handed down decisions favoring corporations, and even deciding a presidential election in 2000 in a manner that was clearly unconstitutional.
SF360: How far off is the revolution, and will there be an app for it?
Goldmacher: Whether there will be a revolution in this country is beyond my ability to predict. What I do know is that increasingly more and more people are beginning to wake up and recognize that the economic system that we currently have in place is not working for them. Young people are starting to drop off the grid and develop a more simple, sustainable lifestyle that does not depend on their working for large corporations and remaining ever in debt. Still others are recognizing that this system does not work from an environmental perspective, and are also beginning to push back against the corporations that are destroying our planet. This is true not only in the United States but across the world as well.
SF360: Given, as you pointed out, all the organized money on the other side, what chance do we the people have?
Goldmacher: If one reads history, or looks at recent events in the Middle East, ordinary people have always risen up to fight against tyranny. The current situation we find ourselves in is not really very different than other times in history. What is different is that we currently do not have a political party that represents the interest of ordinary people, or a unified mass social movement that has a coherent strategy for reclaiming democracy and instituting a fair, green economy. Whether a political party or mass social movement will emerge soon remains to be determined. Van Jones and Moveon.org are attempting to build such a movement, entitled Rebuild the Dream. Additionally, people are organizing outside the framework of electoral politics, which I think is a positive development.
SF360: In the face of the organized money and status quo media, what difference can a documentary make? And why are your funders so stubbornly optimistic?
Goldmacher: We do not believe a single documentary film will result in political change. What we do believe is that this film will be of use to many different groups that are organizing for political change, and will be of extraordinary help to ordinary Americans who are baffled by what is happening to the world that they knew. It will provide them with answers as to why they are seeing their pensions and 401(k) plans disappear, their Social Security benefits being threatened, their jobs being outsourced, and their futures threatened. The film also begins to provide a framework for how people can begin to organize and fight back and how they can take themselves off the corporate grid by growing local economies. As to why our funders are so stubbornly optimistic, the answer is simply that one has to have hope and the backbone to not acquiesce to the unacceptable.
SF360: How did you approach the challenge of communicating abstract ideas about policies and trends? What's the key to adapting this material into a film and not a magazine article?
Goldmacher: From the outset of preproduction of this film, we understood it was going to be a serious challenge to portray Political Economy 101 in an entertaining and understandable fashion. We sought out the most articulate and thoughtful experts, as well as those who had actually participated in formulating or endorsing the policies that have led us to where we are today. We then had to create a storyline that could hook the audience into Heist. Two important components we use in the film are voiceover narration as well as motion graphics/animation to connect the dots. The use of the Powell memo [written by corporate lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell in 1971] and the Mandate for Leadership created by the right-wing Heritage Foundation helps the audience to understand that this has been a well thought-out strategy on the part of both business and conservative interests.
SF360: How does your background is in psychiatry contribute to and influence your approach to filmmaking?
Goldmacher: As a psychiatrist, I understand that people operate on both the rational and emotional levels. Thus, my approach to filmmaking is to target both of these aspects of the way human beings learn and act.
SF360: Going back to Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North), documentary filmmakers have recognized that they have to engage the viewer’s emotions as well as intellect.
Goldmacher: Movies are, of course, an intensely emotional experience if the film is well done. A well-crafted film can impact how somebody thinks about a specific topic or the world in general. A very good example of that was Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. Many people walked out of movie theaters seeing the environment in a totally different way, realizing they had to get involved in the fight to protect the global environment.
SF360: The Bay Area has a long history of social-issue and advocacy filmmaking. How do you see yourself fitting into that documentary tradition?
Goldmacher: I have been a part of the Bay Area documentary community for the past 35 years, which has indeed been a privilege. I describe myself as a social-issue filmmaker and my past films reflect that. My very first film was an exposé of the marketing practices of the pharmaceutical industry, Do No Harm. My most recent film, Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House, was an attempt to reach straight audiences in an emotional manner with regard to the LGBT community. It featured two Jewish lesbian grandmothers from Brooklyn, and was broadcast on HBO.
SF360: What is your distribution strategy for Heist?
Goldmacher: We have a multi-pronged strategy that includes both domestic and international distribution. We initially hope to have a theatrical run, followed by a television broadcast. We are developing community and organizational partnerships throughout the country who will have the opportunity to use the film for both educational and organizing efforts around the issues. In addition, my co-producer and I intend to travel around the country with the film, showing it to audiences in places where they would not ordinarily see such a documentary. We are doing this because we believe every American should have the opportunity to really understand what is going on behind the curtains of power and influence
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