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Lights, Camera, Activism: New Wave of Films Tackle Globalization Head on

By Siobhán Dowling in Berlin

This year's Berlin International Film Festival provided a veritable showcase for films that criticize globalization and free market ideology. From Michael Winterbottom's "The Shock Doctrine" to "The Yes Men Fix the World," many films cast businessmen as the world's new baddies.

A German politician said recently that people are now more afraid of their financial adviser than of al-Qaida. If the latest string of films dealing with the globalization, business and free market ideology are anything to go by, bankers and corporate executives are fast replacing terrorists as the baddies in the popular imagination.

This year's Berlin International Film Festival, or Berlinale, is a veritable showcase for films that attack globalization, big business and the ideology of so-called neo-liberalism, as well as films that plumb the consequences of decades of unfettered capitalism. Offering a range of films with wildly different tones and forms, from the madcap hoaxes in "The Yes Men Fix the World" to the sober intellectual history of neo-liberalism portrayed in the "L'encerclement" to Michael Winterbottom's cinematic adaptation of Naomi Klein's bestselling book "The Shock Doctrine," this year's Berlinale has tapped into a zeitgeist that resoundingly rejects the notion that "greed is good."

Even the festival's opening film, German director Tom Tykwers' pacy thriller "The International" has jumped on the corporate-bashing bandwagon. It has Clive Owen as a permanently disheveled Interpol agent running around the globe with Naomi Watts as his plucky district attorney sidekick on the trail of a bank involved in shady arms deals that will stop at nothing, including political assassination, in its pursuit of profit. It is surely a sign of the times that "The International" manages to plausibly portray the creepy investment bankers as the far worse than a murderous Italian family of Armani-wearing arms dealers.

Of course most of the films on show this February were in production long before the financial crisis unleashed itself last October with the collapse of Lehman Brothers, when the world became intimately aware of the toxic risks posed by derivatives, subprime mortgages and turbo capitalism. Now, of course, the film directors come across as canny prophets of gloom, and for quite a few their mission is not just to explain to the audience exactly how the world has got itself into this mess but also to encourage a genuine bit of citizen activism.

Take Micheal Winterbottom and Matt Whitcross' "The Shock Doctrine" -- a 90 minute barrage of archival images of mayhem and crises from the last 30 years ranging from Pinochet's Chile to Yelstin's Russia and right on up to the invasion of Iraq. The documentary hammers home the central message of Klein's book: that the free market ideology pushed by Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman and his disciples was based on taking advantage of crises to impose the shock treatment of deregulation and privatization. The filmmakers have taken up her argument that far from free markets and free societies going hand in hand, democracy has often been suppressed because voters tended to reject policies that push more people into poverty.

Winterbottom rejects the idea that the film could be regarded as a conspiracy theory. He says he is simply showing that neo-liberalism has become the dominant ideology in the world. "This is how we see the world now," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Free markets are good. Governments are bad. It's always more efficient to have private corporations providing services than it is government. And free markets go hand in hand with free societies." The intention of both film and book is to present an alternative history of the past three decades that argues that the opposite is true.

The Yes Men's Comedy Attack on Globalization

Both filmmakers are passionate about the importance of galvanizing people into action. "What happens next depends on people getting involved," Winterbottom says. "It's up to everyone to try and influence the debate and to try to influence what happens rather than just sitting there saying I wonder what's going to happen next."

A very different film shares this aspiration to spur people into action. In "The Yes Men Fix the World," the two artful dodgers of gonzo filmmaking, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano, take up where they left off in their 2004 offering "The Yes Men." While the tone has shifted somewhat from documentary to slapstick entertainment the two pranksters return to their clever parodies of corporate culture by posing as businessmen at conferences and in the media. In one hoax, one of the pranksters, identifying himself as a representative of oil giant Halliburton, modeled the ridiculous inflatable "SurvivaBall" -- a survival suit designed to protect executives from the effects of global warming, epidemics and social unrest. Once again, they duped conference attendees.

The film also shows their most successful stunt so far, when a Yes Man landed an interview on BBC World Service pretending to be a spokesman for Dow Chemical on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal chemical disaster and solemnly apologizing and pledging to clean up the site of the world's worst-ever industrial accident. The market reacted by briefly wiping $2 billion off the value of Dow's shares.

The Yes Men explain that their raison d'etre is to bring attention to the issues and ultimately they want to see the creation of "a world agreement on how to do things to make life better instead of just making more money." They hope their string of pranks can inspire others to get involved. "Basically all the audience really needs to know about us is that we are odd and hapless and only kind of good at what we do," Bichlbaum told SPIEGEL ONLINE: "And if you know that, that's enough. It's basically to communicate that you can do it too."

Intellectual History of Neo-Liberalism

Coming from a completely different angle yet also a critique of the neo-liberalism agenda is "L'encerclement" or Encirclement a three-hour documentary by French-Canadian director Richard Brouillette.

This sober intellectual history features a number of anti-globalization thinkers, including Susan George and Noam Chomsky, while also giving space to neo-liberals, right-wing advocates of scrapping the welfare system and libertarians. Brouillette says the choice of the title was a way of describing the process of how free market ideas came to dominate. "I really wanted to concentrate on ideology and how the neo-liberals managed to encircle thought and also politics, " he told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Shot in black and white, the film has a sparse visual style, with a series of chapters with which the director reconstructs the way that the liberal ideas of the 19th century were eventually turned on their head. Neo-liberalism managed to infiltrate politics and eventually the big international institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank through what Brouillette calls a "network" of think tanks funded by big business.

Brouillette admits that his film is "challenging" and may not reach a particularly wide audience. "But it will make those fewer people more informed and more aware, I think." He adds that he loves films like "The Yes Men" but he just wanted "to do something in my own style."

The flipside of explaining the ideology is of course showing the impact that free markets and globalization has had on real people's lives in the developing world and there are several other films in the Berlinale that attempt to do just that.

Brazilian director Jose Padilha, who won last year's Golden Bear (Berlinale's top honor) with his hard-hitting "Tropa de Elite," is back with a documentary called "Garapa," a grim exploration of global hunger viewed through the prism of three families in northern Brazil. The director spent a month with these people struggling to survive and feed their children.

Rural poverty is also the theme of "Los Herederos," or The Inheritors, by Mexican filmmaker Eugencio Polgovsky. Spending months among the poor of different regions across Mexico his film focuses specifically on the issue of child labor. With hardly any dialogue his sensitive work shows the everyday reality of small children, some as young as three, who work to help their families get by.

Many work illegally in the big farms along the border with the United States, picking tomatos and chilies for export. Others work on construction sites, make handicrafts or collect wood. Most also take care of elderly grandparents and younger children.

Polgovsky wants people to look more closely at the realities of globalization. "We living in the first world are consuming these products but we have to know they have an origin," he says. "That it was probably picked by the hand of a child."

He explains how he wanted to represent how these children are not only inheriting the skills and cultures of their parents but also their poverty and lack of any opportunities and future. "It is a homage to the children, to their talents for their skills," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "But with their poverty, they are lost, they are dying in some way under the sun. They are losing out on the chance to prepare for a better life."

He says the whole issue of child labor is a difficult one as many families simply could not survive if the children didn't work. "Some communities completely need the help of the children but this is abused by the big companies that use this cheap labor," he says. "In the end they are taking advantage of the necessity of the others: this is how the system works."

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