(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, October 31.)
The New Zealand-made documentary Capital in the 21st Century is a mightily impressive piece of film making.
Inspired by the best-selling 2014 book of the same name by the left-wing French economist Thomas Piketty, it’s taut, fast-moving and masterfully edited. The pace never lets up.
Auckland-based director Justin Pemberton, who previously made films on Richie McCaw (Chasing Great) and New Zealand’s triumphs at the 1960 Rome Olympics (The Golden Hour), makes inventive use of graphics, montages, music and clips from movies – The Grapes of Wrath, Les Miserables – to keep the viewer engaged.
Originally screened as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival and now on commercial release, Capital in the 21st Century has received admiring reviews. Some critics say it translated Piketty’s 700-page book, which by many accounts was hard going, into something easily digestible and entertaining.
The film uses every trick in the documentary-maker’s book to dramatise its message, which is that contemporary capitalism is overwhelmingly rigged in favour of the ultra-rich and basically rotten to the core.
Viewers receptive to that message, which I suspect includes most of the people who paid to see the film, will have come away more convinced than ever that capitalism is wicked and should be dismantled.
As I say, an impressive piece of film-making – in fact a masterpiece of the propagandist’s art.
The basics of effective propaganda film-making are no mystery. They consist of being highly selective about the information presented, which means carefully excluding anything that doesn’t conform with the desired message, and then delivering it in the manner most likely to manipulate the viewer’s emotions.
The American film maker Michael Moore, famous for the documentaries Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, is a master of these techniques. But with this film, Moore’s status as king of cinematic agitprop and darling of the film festival set must be seriously challenged.
As with all the best propaganda movies, there is a grain of truth in Pemberton’s film. It focuses relentlessly on the excesses of global corporate capitalism, the emergence of a super-wealthy elite and the disparities between rich and poor. It conveys this message via a succession of eloquent talking heads and damning images, many of them chosen for maximum emotional impact rather than veracity or strict relevance to the script.
Even a defender of capitalism can nod in agreement with some of the points made. Unrestrained greed is no easier to justify in the 21st century than it was in the 19th.
But what Capital in the 21st Century lacks is any notion of balance, because propaganda films, by definition, aren’t remotely interested in balance. The moment the existence of an alternative, competing narrative is acknowledged, a propaganda movie’s premise is weakened. Propaganda is never about presenting two sides of a story.
It’s no surprise, then, that the film doesn’t mention inconvenient facts such as World Bank figures that show 1.1 billion fewer people are living in extreme poverty than in 1990. Most of the people who have been lifted out of poverty in that time live in the same capitalist economies that Capital in the 21st Century damns as concentrating massive wealth in the hands of a tiny elite.
Neither does the film mention that life expectancy is steadily improving around the world, because this doesn’t gel with its resolutely pessimistic portrayal of how humanity is faring under capitalism.
It shouldn’t have been too hard to find a talking head willing to point out that ordinary people generally do well in market economies where the excesses of capitalism are moderated by liberal democratic government, as in New Zealand. Capitalism and democracy are the magic combination.
Such countries consistently lead global rankings not only for prosperity but for longevity, freedom and respect for human rights, which is why they are a beacon to people desperate to escape corrupt and oppressive states in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Hardly anyone, other than the fictional Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, argues that unbridled capitalism is the pinnacle of human civilisation. It’s a matter of getting the balance right, as many countries do.
But Capital in the 21st Century isn’t interested in such nuances. It conveys the impression that capitalism is incapable of being anything other than exploitative and unfair.
And here’s the interesting thing. Apart from a general pitch in favour of a tax crackdown on the super-rich, the film doesn’t put forward any other economic model as an alternative to capitalism.
At the end, I was left wondering what system the film maker would prefer us to adopt. It can't be socialism, because that's been a wretched failure wherever it's been tried. But the film doesn't say, and I think that's either a copout or dishonest.