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David Sington’s The Flaw, a feature-length documentary now available on DVD, explores the causes of the 2008 economic collapse, It takes its title from former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s Congressional testimony:
“Well, remember that what an ideology is, is a conceptual framework with the way people deal with reality,” he said. “The question is whether it is accurate or not. And what I'm saying to you is, yes, I found a flaw. I don't know how significant or permanent it is, but I've been very distressed by that fact…because I had been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that is was working exceptionally well.”
The meltdown has already been the subject of an Academy Award documentary and several books. Leave it to a British science filmmaker to make this vast and complex subject accessible to a general audience. How did Sington, the award-winning director of Earth Story and In the Shadow of the Moon get the assignment? “The truthful answer is because I was asked to,” he said. “I thought it was an incredible important topic and a big subject.”
Finance was not Sington’s bailiwick, but working on the documentary changed that. “Starting out, I didn’t know anything at all about economics,” he told Millionaire Corner, “but I spent a year on the film and now I do.”
Getting a grip on such a monumental subject was “like hitting a moving target,” Sington said, “but I’m used to dealing with very complicated subjects like quantum physics.”
Job one, he said, was to “read a great deal” and talk to a lot of people in finance. “But they had very little insight into what had gone wrong,” he said. “They were stumbling around like everybody else. My main method of investigation was to read a lot of reports. If you keep an eye on the figures, you can sort out what’s important and what’s not.”
Eschewing narration, The Flaw features a stellar roster of the world’s leading economists, including Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, Louis Hyman, author Robert H. Frank and housing expert Robert Shiller. One of the film’s more compelling talking heads is Ed Andrews, a former economics correspondent for The New York Times, who himself faced the foreclosure of his home. Another compelling personality is Andrew Luan, a former bond trader now, who now operates tours of Wall Street.
Where The Flaw really pays off is in Sington’s humorous and ironic use of American educational films of the 1950s and ‘60s that purport to teach about finance, banking and capitalism. These are intercut with the film’s expert voices and witnesses to the collapse. “I wanted the film to have some mordant black humor,” Sington said. “It is too cheap a thing to just go for the terrible stories about people losing their homes and whose fault it was. People hear those things all the time. Humor helps get to the truth of things.”
Working on the film changed Sington’s worldview, he said. “Basically, I regard myself as center-right, but (I believe) we need to pay attention to income inequality, It’s important to worry how the cake is divided up.”
Now that he has all this new knowledge about how the various financial industries work, does Sington sometimes wish he didn’t know what he now knows? “I’m very glad to understand things better,” he laughed. “I always think knowledge is good, and that ignorance is not bliss.”
Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.