As we reported in this week’s paper, Forest City returns to the big screen this week with the local opening of “Cleveland Versus Wall Street,” a kinda-documentary that serves as a dry run for the city of Cleveland’s lawsuit holding 21 big banks accountable for the foreclosure disaster.
The film, which started out as a straight documentary, morphed into a hybrid piece when Swiss director Jean-Stephane Bron realized he wouldn’t be able to make a movie work with the time frame. Below is a Q&A with Bron about how he jumped the usual genre hurtles to create a one of a kind film.
How did you become interested in doing a film on this situation?
I come from Switzerland, and as you know it’s a country for banks. So I started my research there. I did research over the years, trying to find a place and a story. By a place, I mean a setting that embodies the aspects I wanted to treat in the film, which is the weight of the economy against politics, against ideology. So I started my research in Switzerland and then I went to London, Washington, New York twice, etc. I met like 300 people from financial services, bankers, private bankers. I was pretty desperate because I was a little native that I could just open that door. Finally I read a small piece in the French newspaper saying that the city of Cleveland was trying to sue 21 banks, including Swiss banks. It created a kind of link. And that’s how I came here.
I had the idea to follow the case and follow the fight of the lawyers. After a few months I realized it probably wasn’t going to happen in the time frame I had, which was pretty wide. But not so wide. I had a year and half in front of me or two. But still, it wasn’t possible.
How did Cleveland match up to your expectations when you got here?
Actually I had no expectations. I knew very few things about Cleveland. When you start a film like this, you better have no preconceptions about anything. You let yourself be surprised and be as open minded as possible. [You want to] start from reality, not meet reality with preconceptions.
When you confront reality and reality is not always playing the game you want, you find ideas. So when I got the idea to stage the trial, it was a big relief, because I thought at the time I was not just going to follow something happening, but I could control it, stage it, direct it, and it would be much more interesting that way. It also gave me an opportunity to have a look at what is documentary, how do you deal with reality, what is an “interview,” what is a “witness.” A trial is also a place where you tell stories. Something happened, and you try and figure out what happened. It gives you an opportunity to be very dialectical and show complexity. Then you have a jury — the audience, who has to make their own judgments. That’s why it’s also a setting for looking at what is subjectivity. It shows that it’s always a construction. When you film reality it isn’t truth, it’s a point a view.
In the end it seems like you’ve got a hybrid genre that blends fact and fiction.
Yeah. We are living in a time where fiction and documentary are closely linked together. I think the audience doesn’t see the gape as much as filmmakers or producers. It doesn’t mean that the mix is a good thing, its just that we are experiencing a time where the two notions are close. What’s happening on the internet, how people can film everything and put their lives in sotiees, etc. So narrative films are also drinking the water of documentary and found great inspirtation in reality. And I thought it was interesting to use the tool of fiction, like the trial movie, and put it into something real. It’s a strange feeling for the audience. I don’t know whether it works or not [laughs]. It seems to have worked for a few people. Film is the place of disbelief, you have to believe what you see, and then it becomes true. So at the beginning of Cleveland Versus Wall Street, we say it’s staged. But in the end, you have to believe in the situation. At the end of the film, when you have a verdict, you go slowly out of this fictional situation back to reality.
Are there films or directors that inspired you to take this innovative approach?
I admire a lot of Errol Morris. He’s not very well known by a large audience in the United States. He directed the Thin Blue Line and the Fog of War. And also Waltz with Bashir. It’s a very strange object; it’s hard to define what it is. But Cleveland Versus Wall is not really a character driven movie. As an audience you’re put in the place to understand something slowly. You have to discover something. It asks questions of the audience. I hope there are more questions than answers in the film [laugh].
How’d you get the witnesses to sign on?
I was very lucky. I was helped by so many people here in Cleveland. In six months we put everything together. The families and the brokers were by chance. I met people who knew people who knew people. Everybody at the beginning said “I’ve seen 24 journalists from all around the world, but they came for one or two days, and then they went back to report the sad situation in Cleveland.” When you come one, two, three times, you’ve shown that you want to do something different, maybe they don’t understand what you want. In the end it was pretty easy to find all these people.