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Home » Philly Film Fest 2008 – Days 4 & 5: Yeah, We’re Screwed

Philly Film Fest 2008 – Days 4 & 5: Yeah, We’re Screwed

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On day four I checked out the much anticipated and sold out (for two screenings straight) American Teen. It was worth the wait. A documentary about the lives of seniors about to graduate from a high school in Warsaw, Indiana, it comes off at first like a far less insipid version of The Hills, and while it never really loses that aesthetic, it becomes very moving very quickly. By the end you care more about these students than all of the MTV reality casts combined.

Confession of Pain is the latest from the directing team of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak who did a little film in 2002 called Infernal Affairs (which became The Departed for us Yanks). While their new film doesn't quite have the cool factor of Affairs, it still retains that film's heady mix of crime thriller and Shakespearean tragedy. The amazing Tony Leung Chiu Wai turns in another magnificent performance (seriously, did you see him in Lust, Caution?) as the best friend of a down-and-out ex-cop (House of Flying Daggers' Takeshi Kaneshiro). To tell more, honestly, would be to ruin one of the film's early, shocking surprises.

So, instead, I'm going to talk about the overall mood, much of which can be credited to Andrew Lau and Lai Yiu Fai's cinematography and the haunting score by Chan Kwong Wing. The feel is more Chinese noir than the near-Serpico vibe one gets from Affairs or the Godfather vibe of Johnny To's Triad Election. It's not the film I would use to introduce a newbie to Asian crime cinema, but if you've already got the bug, this won't disappoint.

On day five came the most depressing film of the fest so far. I.O.U.S.A. is the latest from Wordplay director Patrick Creadon. This is not nearly as pleasant a romp. Maybe it's because instead of focusing on America's obsession with crossword puzzles, it focuses on how absolutely screwed we are because of the national debt. Think of it as Maxed Out for the government.

The doc does a good job of laying out a very complex problem, focusing on four types of debt: Federal debt (not as bad as you think, only a $250 billion or so deficit), savings debt (we basically don't save anymore because we're encouraged to spend), trade deficit (arguably the scariest, and I'll tell you why in a minute) and, most importantly according to U.S. Comptroller General David Walker, a leadership debt.

The trade deficit is scary because when a country like, say, China owns a lot of our wealth, they can, if they really want to, cash out. Now, why would anyone do that? Well, the film gives an excellent example. Back during the Suez Canal crisis, we really wanted Britain and France to back off because the USSR (remember them?) was about to take Egypt's side against them. Britain and France said no. We said, "Okay, remember all those British pounds we've invested in? We'd like to sell those, please." Britain and France folded to our demands within a week. We had it in our power to basically destroy the British pound (today, not so much).

That's not to say China is planning on pushing us around (much) in the near future. But the point is, they can. And every year that goes by that we owe them more money, they can more.

The other really infuriating history lesson the film highlights (well, there are many, actually, but we only have so much time) is the story behind the U.S. leaving the gold standard. I always assumed this was done because of some new economic theory that was all the rage and made sense at the time and blah, blah, blah. The version of the story the film tells goes something more like this.

In the early '70s, France (and they weren't the only ones who felt this way) saw how we were spending money on social programs at home and on a particularly expensive war in Vietnam (And hey, they knew how expensive Vietnam could be. Am I right, folks?) and said "Hey, maybe we should turn those dollars we've got in for gold because they might not be worth much soon." Nixon and his buddies (especially Haldeman) anticipated this move and said, "What if those dollars weren't so much attached to gold as, say, nothing?" So, the conversation between France and the U.S. ends up going something like this.

France: "So, if it wouldn't be too much trouble, we'd like all the gold that these dollars represent."

Us: "Um… what gold?"

In the paraphrased words of Chris Rock, that is some crack dealer shit right there.

The film is full of fun facts like that and cool charts and graphs and, most importantly, real people talking about real problems (or being stumped by questions like "What's a trade deficit?"), which keeps the film grounded through oceans of econo-speak.

One of the producers was there and actually asked us for suggestions since the final cut won't go to theaters until August. Some wanted more Bush-bashing, some wanted a clarification on how this was a bipartisan issue, many wanted more solutions. For my part, I mentioned that the film was lacking what I called a "San Francisco moment."

In An Inconvenient Truth, you see a map of San Francisco drowned. That stays with you. It says, in very simple, visual, concrete terms, "This is what happens if we do nothing."

While you get the sense that Something Bad is going to happen if we don't do something about this debt stuff, you never really get a handle on what that is (although the Suez scenario comes close).

Even without heeding any of the audience's suggestions, though, they've already got a great and, yes, Important film on their hands.

Next: What else the government has been doing with your money. 

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