Bank Job documentary review: culture jamming for fun and justice

part of my Movies for the Resistance series
MaryAnn’s quick take: Brilliantly tantalizing, bursting with creative enthusiasm and bouncy energy, this cheeky work of artistic activism is out to subvert our debt-driven economy. Who says smashing injustice can’t be fun?
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m so ready to smash the system
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a documentary that ends on a cliffhanger before, but that’s what Bank Job does, and it’s a brilliantly tantalizing way to ensure that this terrific film’s activism lingers with you, and engages you to want to see it continue, on a much-needed, much more massive scale.

This second feature from filmmakers Daniel Edelstyn and Hilary Powell has them documenting the culture-jamming art project they started in the long, rippling wake of the 2008 financial crisis. They set up a “bank” on the high street, or main street, in the deprived London borough of Walthamstow, where they live, to use as a headquarters and working space. There they printed their own limited-edition “currency,” designed by Powell, featuring workers from a local food bank, a soup kitchen, a youth organization, and a primary school… all of which have been struggling mightily in Britain’s postcrash austerity economy. They sold their “bank notes” as funky collectibles, which were readily snapped up. (There are some left; you can buy them at the film’s official site.) Half the proceeds went to those desperate projects.

Bank Job
Fake money, not counterfeit, our heroes hasten to explain…

It’s what they did with the other half that is the really big, really important thing here. Inspired by Strike Debt, an offshoot of New York City’s Occupy Wall Street, Edelstyn and Powell wanted to use that money to buy up debt — just ordinary debt from ordinary households — and destroy it. Wipe it away in order to free its holders.

But… how is that even possible? Turns out that there’s a thing called the “secondary debt market,” where entities buy and sell our debts — our credit-card bills and car loans and mortgages and all sorts of other outstanding bills — sometimes for pennies on the pound (or dollar). But how is that even possible? Don’t those original debt-holders want to be paid back? How can they afford to not have those debts repaid?

Bank Job
There are some explosive ideas in this movie about how to fix our broken economy…

Bank Job dives into the absolutely bonkers reality behind our economy to explain it all, from the fact that our society has been deliberately restructured since the 1980s — with the rise of neoliberalism in the era of Reagan and Thatcher — to get us into debt and keep us there, to the reality that money is quite literally created out of thin air by economic institutions. Money is a fiction, a shared delusion… but because most of us — including most politicians, as is pointed out here! — don’t really understand this, this is a delusion that our economic overlords are able to use to keep us chained to maximizing their profits.

It’s all explained fantastically well here, and yet Bank Job is not an angry film. Quite the opposite. Edelstyn and Powell, both of whom are bursting with creative enthusiasm and bouncy energy, tell their story via a cheeky heist metaphor, one with a charming DIY aesthetic: the directors, who are also a couple, are often videobombed by their dogs and their small children. Who says that smashing economic injustice can’t be fun? Their harnessing of community is hugely inspiring, and the conceptual journey they take sends us off down wild new paths: What other debts can we cancel? Could we cancel all of them? Let’s go!

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