How do you turn a 600-page history of the economics of the past 30 years, replete with in-depth research and footnotes, into a 90-minute movie? Not easily — but it’s something filmmakers Michael Winterbottom and Matt Whitecross have taken a stab at with their cinematic version of “The Shock Doctrine,” Naomi Klein’s polemical account of the rise of what she calls “disaster capitalism.” And their timing is impeccable as the world searches for a narrative to explain the current economic turmoil.
The two British directors have chosen to take up the mantle of her alternative history of the past three decades which argues that the dominant free market ideology was imposed as a kind of “shock therapy” in times of deep crises.
The process of turning her book into a film inevitably involved paring down the amount of material and Winterbottom, who worked with Whitecross before on “The Road to Guantanamo,” admits that at times it was difficult to decide what to include and what to leave out.
The film whizzes through the trouble spots of the last three decades, with a barrage of archival footage from General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile to Boris Yelstin’s introduction of unfettered capitalism to 1990s Russia and onto the privatization of the war in Iraq. Although they are showing the film this week at the Berlin International Film Festival it is still a work in progress and the final cut could yet look a bit different.
Of course Klein is the poster child of the anti-globalization movement and there is the danger that the film could be dismissed as a conspiracy theory on how the neo-liberals plotted to take over the world. This is something Winterbottom and Whitecross are keen to dispel, pointing out that Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who became the guru of neo-liberalism, was perfectly open about his argument that you should exploit moments of crisis to try to implement free market ideas like deregulation and privatization.
“We are saying that this is the dominant ideology,” Whitecross says, pointing that free market ideas have been accepted as the natural order of things for decades.
Winterbottom says their film is about presenting the alternative narrative of the past three decades that opposes the notion that free markets and free societies always go hand in hand. “We are not saying Milton Friedman was involved in an evil conspiracy,” he says. Instead they simply want the audience to look at the consequences of Friedman’s ideas and decide if they agree with them or not.
Whitecross, who traveled to South America with Klein to shoot some of the film, says that those who were part of the military dictatorships there agree wholeheartedly with its premise. “I spoke with one of Pinochet’s ex-ministers and he said everything in the book pertaining to Chile is true and it was good what we did because people need to be told what to do. He said people needed the free market and they weren’t ready for it.”
Although Winterbottom and Whitecross embarked on the project last year, events have since taken over, making the film particularly timely. The financial crisis and economic turmoil have conveniently allowed them to update the 2007 book and gave them a new ending to the movie. Klein is shown addressing students about the financial crisis and the banking bailouts, which she calls a massive transfer of wealth from public to private hands.
Winterbottom reiterates this point. “The first reaction to the financial crisis was that the banks were saying: OK we’ve been making huge profits, now here are several hundred billions of dollars of debts, and they’re yours, ” he says. “That is very typical of them trying to use the crisis for their own advantage.”
He says he hopes the crisis will “open up a bigger debate about how society should be run.” Winterbottom points out that things were different before Friedman’s ideas took hold and that they can be different again. “It’s easy to think that things are never going to change and that we can never change things — but things change all the time,” he said.