Interview: Justin Pemberton, director of Capital in the Twenty First Century
1 July 2020
Adapting one of the most groundbreaking and powerful books of our time, Capital in the Twenty First...
Adapting one of the most groundbreaking and powerful books of our time, Capital in the Twenty First Century is an eye-opening journey through wealth and power. It breaks the popular assumption that the accumulation of capital runs hand in hand with social progress, shining a new light on the world around us and its growing inequalities.
We are delighted to have director Justin Pemberton answer some questions exclusively for us about the film.
Your documentary, Capital in the Twenty First Century, is adapted from Thomas Piketty’s best-selling book of the same name. What drew you to the text and how did you begin the process of adapting such a successful book?
I bought the book back in 2014 when the English version first came out and was captured by the span of Piketty’s time horizon and the shocking finding that we’re trending back to 18th, 19th century levels of inequality – something we’d assumed was destined to be a thing of the past. But at that time I wasn’t thinking about it as a film. It was a couple of years later that I heard NZ Producer Matthew Metcalfe was talking to Thomas Piketty about making his book into a movie that I jumped up and said “please can I make this!”. Matthew told me to go away and write the movie that I saw and then we sent it to Thomas – and he wrote back saying, “I think I going to like this film”, whew! So we then started to make it.
The history of capitalism over the last 300 years and its current repercussions on society can make for a heavy watch and a bulky intake of information. How did you work to tackle such themes in a concise and accessible way?
The goal was to give the audience a ‘gods eye view’ moving through time. I realised I’d never seen a film showing how the flow of wealth has tracked over centuries and thought this was an exciting opportunity to do just that - and, in particular, exploring the growing influence of capital over the last fifty years, which felt vital given Thomas’s findings.
Also, once you start looking, the stories about capital are richly represented thought-out pop culture and literature. In the print version of Capital In The 21st Century, Thomas Piketty draws heavily on references from 18th and 19th century novels to paint a picture of the past, as the first reliable wealth data fortunately coincides with the arrival of realism in literature – with the likes of Jane Austen and Balzac. These literary greats gave us the first glimpses of the rigid reality of life in 19th century Europe (and modern day audiences are still captivated by their stories).
So I was interested in presenting a vivid ‘pop-cultural’ history, not just as a fascinating socio-political investigation, but as a pacey ‘thriller’ that seamlessly reflects the time we live in now. The pop-culture keeps the film spirited, accessible and entertaining – even at times humorous.
Tell us about the group of individuals you have drawn together to narrate the film.
Thomas and I collaborated on the list of people we wanted to interview – and he had veto power. My biggest criteria was to make sure that everyone we interviewed could tell a good story. But it was a real thrill for me to be able to sit down and chat with some of the best minds on the planet about this topic. I was – and still am! – a fan of many of them.
To make the interviews more captivating, the characters also talk directly to the audience using the Errol Morris interrotron technique. But I ultimately saw the interviewees as narrating the world we were constructing through archive and filmed footage – it was imperative that the film wasn’t a ‘talking heads’ movie.
You have spoken about Piketty’s book and your film as being ‘companions’. Piketty wrote the book to irrefutably disprove the assumption that growing capital would inevitably lead to a 'trickle down' of wealth to society. Given Piketty seems to have proven this as a fact in his writing, why do you think it has still not had any policy or political effect 7 years later?
A couple of reasons. One is that ideas often move slowly through the political sphere. There’s research that shows a lag of around 20-years before policy usually catches up with public opinion – as politicians are ultimately reactive rather than proactive, unfortunately. But the other big thing is the toxic influence of capital over politics.
Capital has been increasingly distorting democracy as it’s concentrated more and more into the hands of a few. Highly unequal societies are not consistent with a healthy democracy. We really need to get capital out of politics so we can get back to ‘one person, one vote’, rather than ‘one dollar, one vote’.
Do you feel like the impact of the film’s message has shifted, and potentially intensified, after the globalised events of the last few months?
Yes! I think the pandemic shines a light on inequality (as has the ‘me too’ and Black Lives Matter movements). We are heading into a new economic shock and, as we show in the movie, times of upheaval are historically times of radical change. I really feel the appetite for it growing too.
Why should audiences watch Capital in the Twenty First Century?
With what’s happening right now, there’s an opportunity for a once-in-a-generation chance to remake society and build a better future. But others also fear it will only make existing injustices worse. The one thing that’s clear is we’ve arrived at a pivotal moment right now…and it was the godfather of neo-liberal economics himself, Milton Friedman, who said, “Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” And Capital In The Twenty First Century offers up some ideas!
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