Spank the Banker
The Fiendishness of Finance
Let us start with a joke and follow with a question. Before a criminal would rob a bank; now they might be more inclined to work in one. This joke might be some sort of answer to Duncan Campbell's claim in the Guardian, "The golden age for armed robbery - golden for the robbers rather than the petrified cashiers - was in the 60s and 70s in an age before every street corner had a lurking CCTV camera, and before supergrasses tore up the old honour among thieves code of conduct book." But the fifties through to the seventies was also the golden age of the Heist film (usually robbing jewellery stores or banks), from Rififi to The Italian Job, from The Thomas Crown Affair to The Killing. There are still plenty Heist films being made, but they no longer seem so relevant. Our relationship with finance has shifted from seeing the banker as the dutiful figure protecting our financial interests, attacked by criminal forces, to suspect individuals working properly from the inside.
And now to our question. Can we call the financial movie a burgeoning genre, and thus perhaps an attempt to understand this complex shift from external to internal criminal activity, from the analogue Heist to the digital theft, from the criminal to the corrupt? And, another question, if it happens to be a genre does it cover both documentaries and fiction films, The Corporation, Inside Job and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, The Big Short, Arbitrage and Margin Call?
Fifty years ago, indeed even fifteen years ago, film didn't seem very interested in finance, with one of its rare, large successes, Wall Street, focusing more on the enormous egos at work than the specifics of financial transactions. In some ways, Samir Mehanovic's small, unassuming yet tense and detailed financial doc Spank the Banker inverts the principles of Oliver Stone's film. As in Mehanovic's other works, including The Fog of Srebrenica and Through Our Eyes, the director is interested in the little man - the powerless people caught in the atrocity in Bosnia in the first instance, the fall out of the war in Syria in the second. In Spank the Banker he may have the TV personality Noel Edmonds as one of those interviewed, but he brings him down to size all the better to indicate that the bankers, usually themselves evading jail, take no prisoners.
Edmonds, like many others, saw his business Unique Group collapse after HBOS financiers turned his successful company into a lossmaker that then couldn't pay back its debts. As with other figures interviewed in the film, Edmonds allowed the bank to look at how his helicopter's company was being run, who then suggested changes that would improve its productivity, while instead looking to strip it for all it was worth. As Edmonds says, the banks were looking for companies with strong cash flows, and then would put the screws on them, generating more and more charges, threatening to close the client's account if there was any hint of payment failure, and then going after personal guarantees. If the company went under it wouldn't only be the company that would fail, the banks would also make a grab for people's personal property, savings etc. This might seem understandable if these were loss-making companies (after all how many businesses go to the wall owing fortunes while the directors are protected by Limited status?), but this was a profit-making organization that the bank wanted to undermine so they could maximize their own profits. A company making money for itself makes less money for the bank: a company that collapses can be picked up on the cheap and sold off at great profit; while the houses of its directors can be repossessed and then sold on. Mehanovic's point is that this was a systematic aspect of finance prevalent since the nineties and especially so over the last decade. Britain's obsession with keeping the bankers happy, deregulating the industry and allowing it to semi-regulate itself, led to functioning businesses failing. Businesses and banks that would seem to be natural allies, became instead economic rivals. Banks weren't there any more to help small business, but to fleece them of their owners' assets.
One of the ways this was done was to suggest that the company could benefit from expert advice. A couple, Nikki and Paul Turner, with years of expertise in the music industry working with Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley and others, found that their recording company was now headed by a twenty-two-year-old trainee accountant with no knowledge of the music trade. There was nothing wrong with the company; and certainly a lot less wrong with it than when someone with no experience was offering advice on how best to run it. When the couple wouldn't listen to her advice the young woman got quite hysterical, feeling that her authority was being undermined because authority was precisely what she had: she possessed fiduciary control - she was the person who puppeteered the purse strings. "People who know nothing about your business", Nikki says "are put in place to run your business on behalf of the banks". Since the banks know nothing about the business and yet want to run it, what must be their purpose? She believes "the intention would appear to be: pull the company down and steal the assets."
The quality of Mehanovic's film lies in the interviews and we might wish that he concentrated almost exclusively on this aspect of the film since the details are sometimes fiendishly complicated for those who aren't up on the finer points of financial dealings. This is an independent work that feels ferociously so in its investigation, but too often conventional in its aesthetic. This doesn't mean that Mehanovic needed to go in the direction of The Big Short with its scene of Margot Robbie explaining the nature of the sub-prime market while drinking champagne as she lies in a bubble bath. Indeed, maybe the opposite approach would have been more useful, attending to faces and the words of those interviewed. There are numerous extraneous inserts and cutaways that add little to the knowledge we need to absorb. At one moment there is a cut to various pastas sitting on the table, a shot that will have a payoff much later in the film when the Turners discuss the hard times as they lived off the stuff, but when we see it the shot feels like a random insert without much point and purpose. Even shots to the facade of a Lloyds branch while the Turners discuss their predicament adds nothing to the film. The editing is generally excellent in pushing the story along, but we sense here sometimes the televisual tics that hamper many a documentary on the small screen, docs that want to keep things busy. Yet there is more than enough here to keep our mind focused, and the inserts and cutaways can feel like distractions.
An earlier work-in-progress cut of the film had a fine score but whose melancholic tones appeared ill-fitted to a film that plays up stress more than loss. The strings and woodwinds often gave the film the mood of a tragedy rather than that of a scandal. What happened was that bankers were finding ways to screw people over; the music suggested lives more categorically devastated. This isn't to suggest that what the bankers did was of no little consequence - but there is a world of a difference between Edmonds losing his fortune and a father losing his children, and music is one of the ways in which this difference can be conveyed. When in The Fog of Srebrenica an intertitle says that Bosnian Serbs moved bodies from the graves and moved them to another location to hide their crimes, the film's haunting music echoes the haunting of the survivors who must live with the loss. "Not one hundredth of a second would pass where I wouldn't think; Where are they. How are they?" we hear as a Bosnian Muslim woman tries to describe her pain. The music captures this feeling precisely. But in Spank the Banker, when the stirring sounds originally informed us that "after the crash of 2008, British banks conspired to steal 100 billion from small business customers" it seemed anomalous. The intertitle adding, "lives were shattered and families destroyed in Britain, Europe and America" is now much more focused on the facts and introduces us to the specifics of the events that the film unravels.
This is scandalous behaviour and demands a soundtrack to match it and in this final cut music is eschewed for the first hour all the better to be utilised in the last section of the film. Up until then the soundtrack may brood a little too heavily, might still be a bit too insistent for one who yearns for the aural simplicity of the Direct Cinema works of Wiseman, Maysles and Pennebaker but this is a dramatic story indeed and Mehanovic wants to make that clear in the many low-angled shots of the city, and through a sound design that ominously indicates this is a story that should be frightening for more than its onscreen victims. When we watch (and hear) Enron, Inside Job or The Corporation, the films create an emphatic, aggressive soundtrack utilising punchy, pulsating music, often with an ironic undertone, evident when Inside Job utilises Randy Bachman's Taking Care of Business or Enron uses Tom Wait's God's Away on Business. The pun on business is played with all the better to give the viewer a counter-confidence in the face of the bankers' arrogance. Can these guys really get away with this, we wonder - and know that they have and that we now know. Mehanovic retains an element of bombast but the soundtrack isn't at all ironic. It is now fretful sound design, as if trying to encompass so much more than the albeit terrible financial losses of the people whose story it tells, but it is good to see a financial documentary that doesn't try and mimic the egos of the bankers in using music that insists there are others who have the best tunes. Neither the film's earlier soundtrack nor the present one does this, but the newer one gives the film the breathing space it needs to allow us to absorb the numerous facts it presents us with, even if Mehanovic is far from shy when it comes to indicating this is a serious issue that none of us should ignore.
But is this also the nature of the genre, as the finance movie has already accumulated its own set of stereotypes and cliches with Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street perhaps the last word in ironic excess. What it offers is cinematic hyperbole, and thus next to it there is nothing wrong with Mehanovic searching out the emphatic even if finally the film's strength light instead in litotes. Understatement can ask us to look at the people who are the victims of the coke-fuelled, yacht-buying, private-jetting, escort-using execs who ply their trade by playing with other people's money. A major criticism levelled at Scorsese's film was how much it ignored the little man, with the New York Times reporting, "left untold is the story of the victims, disparaged as "garbage" by Mr. DiCaprio's character in the movie. For many of them... the publicity for the movie has brought back the old pain." Telling the people's story is exactly what Mehanovic's films does, and the film is all the better when straightforwardly doing so. Those intimate moments where the director shows just how familiar he happens to be with the people he interviews as he watches the Turners cook, for example, or the St Andrews hotelier Jim McGrory practising Judo, are all very well, but what interests us especially is the level of familiarity he achieves once he gains access to his interviewees. How he manages to do this is of less interest than how he gets people to speak about their personal crises in the context of public scandals. Neil Mitchell, "who claimed to have acted as a whistleblower over financial irregularities, made a number of allegations including wrongful dismissal from Torex, which was sold by RBS and went into liquidation in 2010," according to the Financial Times. Mitchell talks about the harassment he received, saying he personally has been attacked twice, members of his family intimidated and harassed, and that his phone has been constantly hacked. Police said they were investigating such coincidences within the context of RBS, who Mitchell was taking to court. In these interviews with the Turners, McGrory and Mitchell, we feel Mehanovic on their side, listening diligently to their stories, and wanting to get their grievances out there in the world.
This could lead to accusations of bias. Where are the interviews with the banking CEOS, with the lawyers scamming millions in buy-outs and sell-offs? Often this type of film contains intertitles saying that they couldn't get access to key players, evident in Inside Job, where filmmaker Charles Ferguson tried to speak with Hank Paulson, Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers, all of whom declined. Mehanovic accepts this is not the focus of his film: his purpose isn't to be objective, but to be quietly emphatic - to get close to the people he feels have been wronged, even if he does offer a subtitle at the end of the film indicating that he tried to contact numerous bankers but they all declined. He allows himself only a brief moment showing the bankers' perspective, recording surreptitiously footage where Edmonds asks a question at a Lloyds AGM in Edinburgh; another when Jim is speaking to someone in Clydesdale Bank. In the former, the chairman, Norman Blackwell looks glaringly at Edmonds, cinematically becoming the guilty party whether culpability can be laid at his door or not. Blackwell took over in 2013, so perhaps cannot be blamed for wrongdoings years before his employ. But given his salary is 700,000 according to This Is Money, that should be cash enough to answer the odd difficult question.
It is the sort of awkward moment that Nick Broomfield has exploited time and time again, and a few more wouldn't have gone amiss if Mehanovic did want to up the suspense and incorporate more than the interviews. It could create a hostile environment for those who think that their silence needn't be embarrassing, with Mehanovic following them around determined to get a few words or at least generate an awkward situation. We might recall the moment a BBC Panorama reporter followed Lord Ashcroft for more than two minutes before Ashcroft ducked into the men's room, a wonderful example of the persistence of the long take.
A 'hostile environment' is a very contemporaneous term: whether it is the way Disability Claimants are pushed through harsh tests, how Windrush victims have been treated unfairly by the Home Office, or how sanctions have been forced upon unemployment benefit claimants who haven't applied for a set number of jobs in a given week. These are examples of power speaking to the people not for them. The Broomfield method is a very good way of reversing the process. When we hear Anthony Stansfeld, Thames Valley Police Commissioner, talk, we can see how important it is to have investigatory journalism even if happens to be to the point of harassment. As Stansfield explains that banks would "call in the loan at very, very short notice...value the company at a fraction of what it was worth", sell it off, and "then go for the personal guarantees of the owners of the companies", we can see that pestering journalism has its place. The police with limited budgets and convoluted financial contracts to work through could only do so much, and perhaps didn't always wish to do much more.
Spank the Banker, however, decides to go easy on the pestering, but it is a film that clearly wishes to show us the very victims that the high adrenaline Wolf of Wall Street ignores, and it is also a Scottish film made by a Bosnian director who wants to understand that the banking scandal could be seen as a very British affair. We might argue how much of the banking crisis was a London problem or an Edinburgh one (an argument thrown about a lot during the Scottish Independence debate), but Mehanovic doesn't seek to apportion blame based on nationality, but sees perpetrators and victims, with victims from all over the UK. It is the victim that interests him as he opens the film on an HBOS, Lloyds eviction in 2016, caught on a mobile phone and that turns out to be illegal. The police are called and the evictors evicted. Moments like this and the later scene with Blackwell don't seem to intrude on the understatement of the overall work, on the gentle nature of the enquiry that leaves Mehanovic an invisible presence behind the camera to whom one can talk, but the use of the footage recorded on the phone is a little like the footage where the Panorama journalist tries to interview Lord Ashcroft. It demands truth to power through recorded material. The financial film might be part of a burgeoning genre but it might be s sign of financial health when we start having fewer examples of them. At the moment they do indeed seem necessary.
But Mehanovic, who is himself a survivor from the war in the former Yugoslavia, is chiefly concerned in his work with modes of recovery rather than generating further tension. Whether it is The Fog of Srebrenica, with locals speaking of their terrible memories, the Syrians fleeing to Germany and thinking of atrocities back home in Through Our Eyes, or here, dealing with an apparently far more innocuous situation that nevertheless showed bankers more than happy to make lives miserable through letters in the post rather than snipers firing at civilians, Mehanovic's work is interested in recollection trying to find relative tranquillity. These are the themes of understatement rather than overstatement, of getting one's life in order and one's nerves settled. If we have a few problems with the film that shouldn't lead us to ignore what matters basically about it: that this is a film about the people and for the people, and ought to be seen. If Thoreau could famously say in the 19th century that most people live lives of quiet desperation, Mehanovic says that plenty are doing so in the 21st as well, and there are those making those lives deliberately desperate in the context of ever more expanding hostile environments. The financial industry just happened to be one of them, as Mehanovic makes a film that adds to this worryingly burgeoning genre: the fiendish finance movie, playing on both the intricacy of the details and the nefarious behaviour of those in the banking industry.
© Tony McKibbin