Cleveland returns to the big screen this week with the local premiere of Cleveland Versus Wall Street, the most talked-about Forest City flick that has nothing to do with Charlie Sheen. Just like Cleveland itself, the movie has already stirred up interest overseas thanks to its innovative mesh of fact and fiction.
Back in the late ’00s, Swiss director Jean-Stéphane Bron began researching a film about the intersection of the global financial markets and politics. When he came across a small writeup in a French newspaper on Cleveland’s quixotic campaign to hold 21 banks accountable for the foreclosure crisis, Bron had a hunch he’d found the context for his documentary. But when the director made his first trip to Northeast Ohio in 2008, he didn’t know his Christmas Ale from his Christmas Story.
“I knew few things about Cleveland,” Bron says. “When you start a film like this, you better have no preconceptions about anything.”
The director got in touch with the city’s legal department and began pre-production. But when it became clear the molasses-like legal system might take years to chew through the case, Bron fired off a new idea: Instead of following the actual lawsuit, he’d stage a phony trial with real lawyers, a real jury, and unscripted testimony from real witnesses. The result was the type of genre cross-dressing film Europeans love to sit around cafés and talk about.
Although the trial and eventual verdict are legally meaningless, the movie lays out the case for whether the big banks should shoulder the responsibility for the financial chain reaction that decimated local neighborhoods.
And moviegoers everywhere seem interested in hearing that argument. The movie opened last year’s Cannes Film Festival and has done well commercially overseas. Bron attributes interest outside of the 216 to the universal nature of today’s economy.
“It’s not just something [in Cleveland]. It’s everywhere,” he says. “This was the first global crisis, and the lesson of that is there is no more local crisis.”
Cleveland Versus Wall Street opens Friday at the Cedar Lee and Capitol theaters, but already it’s gotten more love than the lawsuit it’s based on: The city’s own gambit was eventually shrugged off by the U.S. Supreme Court.