Capital in the Twenty-First Century director on what pop culture can teach us about inequality
A decade that began with the Occupy Wall Street protests and ended with American presidential candidates talking frankly about the need to distribute wealth more evenly was perfectly bifurcated by a little book called Capital in the Twenty-First Century. First published in French in 2013 by Thomas Piketty and then translated into English by Arthur Goldhammer in 2014, Capital was an unexpected best-selling smash, acclaimed for the way it used troves of historical economic data to illustrate how capitalism breeds inequality when not sufficiently regulated.
For all its virtues, though, Capital in the Twenty-First Century is still a doorstop-size book. So to help illustrate its points about inequality and wealth for a broader audience, the story has has been adapted into a documentary directed by Justin Pemberton. With the film being released in "virtual theaters" this weekend, EW caught up with Pemberton to discuss how pop culture can help explain economics and why capital is the real virus right now.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I read Piketty's book a couple years ago and got a lot out of it, but it certainly doesn't strike one as the most adaptable book ever written. How did you approach translating it into a documentary?
JUSTIN PEMBERTON: The first thing we realized, as did Thomas, was obviously that the movie could not be the book. The book is incredibly long, nearly 700 pages with more than 100 graphs, and it's written as an economic textbook for students. It's an academic book. But what was so captivating about his story for me when I read it was that he took such a long view of history. He traveled through time, and saw history not so much repeating as rhyming. He talks about Pride & Prejudice, The Grapes of Wrath, and things like that in the book, so that was kind of the window for me into how pop culture really has told us the story of wealth and inequality for hundreds of years. It's a great barometer of the feeling on the ground at the time. I knew I wanted to use pop culture, so that was a big thing straight away. But also I realized I'd never seen a film that travels across time telling the story of wealth, where wealth is the character you're following through time. That's where it started.
I wrote a treatment, given to Thomas, and he liked it. He wanted the film to reach a broader audience than the book, and communicate the ideas to people who perhaps wouldn't get through the book.
The film begins with the definition of capital and then goes through the historical evolution of the concept. It can be hard to define capitalism since it rules so much of our lives; sometimes one is tempted to shrug and say, "Everything is capitalism!" How did you wrap your head around the challenge of explaining capitalism in a cinematic way?
One of the things I wanted to look at was how capital is the tail that wags the dog in so many of the biggest moments of history. In some ways the film becomes the greatest hits of history — not great as in wonderful, but the biggest moments. Capital's there all the way, whether it be World War I, which as a historian in our film says was a battle for capital, or the Industrial Revolution and how that was driven by the owners of capital seeing a way to produce more wealth and concentrate, concentrate, concentrate. Then of course there's the movement of the 1980s where capital was deregulated and set free again after a quite regulated period. I wanted to look at history through the lens of capital: What was capital doing? How did this impact capital? That's the way I thought it would hopefully be a character in the film.
You know what's crazy? We actually referred to capital as "the virus" in one of the treatments. It is something that spreads, is all-encompassing, wants to consume everything in its path without much thought for the host. I also thought of it sometimes as a wild animal that could be tamed.
A big reason the book is readable even for someone like me who's not an economics student is how often Piketty often quotes novels by Austen or Balzac to illustrate the points he's making. How did you build on Piketty's approach to weave movie clips, songs, and other culture into the movie?
One of the disciplines I brought was that the culture has to be from the period. Jane Austen's books were written in that period of inequality, Les Miserables was written in the time after the revolution, The Grapes of Wrath was written in the Great Depression, and Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" was written in the late '70s, early '80s.I wanted to make sure all the pop culture was placed in the right era. That was a challenge because there was no archival footage before World War I. Either we can shoot things, which we did a bit at the Industrial Revolution museum in Britain, Versailles, and one of the Rothschild mansions, or use movies that depict the period — like the Dickens film at the beginning. It's a black-and-white film from the 1900s, but its words were written in that period.
Thomas really loves pop culture as well, which was a surprise when I met him. He said his favorite film at the time was the one with the train, Snowpiercer! I was like "Okay, he loves sci-fi!" So he was up for all that.
I'm delighted to learn that Thomas Piketty loves the films of Bong Joon Ho. That is fantastic.
Oh, he does! I met Bong Joon Ho, too, at the Sydney Film Festival. Capital was playing there last year, and so was Parasite. I learned he's a Piketty fan too! They're both fans of each other's work, which was nice to hear.
That's funny, Parasite was already kind of in my head watching this film because here I am, an American, talking to you in New Zealand about a book by a French guy that's about this phenomenon that we all experience and understand. That's part of what Bong said to explain the global phenomenon of Parasite, that it's a story about inequality, and therefore we can all relate to it. It's kind of remarkable when you think about it like that.
Absolutely. It's amazing that even though it's coming from different cultures, the experience of inequality is the same.
It's interesting timing that this movie is coming out in the midst of this pandemic, something that is shaping up as a social and economic crisis. You almost couldn't ask for a better illustration of inequality than the stock market rising while so many people are struggling to pay for rent or even food. What can this film tell us about this moment?
It's a shocking depiction of inequality at its worst. Depending on which way this goes, it's likely to exacerbate it. We're seeing companies that hide all their property in tax havens getting government bailout money that doesn't come with any conditions that they support their workers. We're seeing people in the gig economy who don't have any access to health care and sick pay. It is frightening. When we were making the film, it's the world we were imagining could happen. But now the film's coming out as it's happening, and that's not good. It makes the film feel more urgent, which is perhaps good in terms of maybe effecting some change. The big thing that Thomas' research has shown is that things don't change unless there is some kind of catastrophe, like a world war or a giant financial collapse. So I guess the positive note is that this could be a catalyst for change.
Even though the film is a bracing reality check, I also like the way it ends with various people listing proposals we could try to fight inequality. Is the takeaway that we have to take upon ourselves the responsibility to think about this stuff and push for more equality in whatever way we can?
One thing is that change starts with people talking about ideas. In a sense that's simple, but it's so powerful. History shows it can take a couple of decades for today's conversations to become tomorrow's laws, as we're seeing with climate change. It's taken a long time, but now most people want some action.
The big thing I want people to take away is the detrimental issues with having money/capital in politics, because that's distorting the system. It's distorting things. Tax havens is a modern invention of international capital that needs to be solved, and it can be solved in the digital era. Even though politicians say it's too hard, it's not, and we give some examples in the film. Also the dangers of inheritance. But look how quickly the wealth tax has entered the debate in America. When we were making the film and doing the interviews a couple years ago, it still seemed far off.