Author and economist Thomas Piketty to play undetermined role in film; he talks Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump exclusively with Nonfictionfilm.com, blasts Trump's anti-immigrant views as "pure racism"
One of the most important nonfiction books of this century will become a nonfiction film, according to producers of the project.
Filmmaker Justin Pemberton is set to direct the adaptation of "Capital in the 21st Century," the book by French economist Thomas Piketty that became a surprise international bestseller. Piketty has been hailed by no less a figure than Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman as "arguably the world's leading expert on income and wealth inequality."
My book is very visual in a way. There are lots of pictures you could use to illustrate what I’m talking about. I think it could work very well.
Matthew Metcalfe will produce the film. In a statement he said, "This documentary would be to economy what An Inconvenient Truth was to climate change: a turning point that we won't be able to ignore afterwards."
Nonfictionfilm.com was on hand as the project was announced at an event during the Cannes Film Festival, where Piketty was joined by Metcalfe and Pemberton.
"This was completely unexpected," Piketty told NFF of the documentary. "When I wrote this book I had no idea that it would become a film at some point. But then after Matthew [Metcalfe] and Justin [Pemberton] approached us and after the success of the book in the end I thought it was sort of natural. My book is very visual in a way. There are lots of pictures you could use to illustrate what I’m talking about. I think it could work very well... I’m very, very excited and looking forward to see this. I’m looking forward to be surprised by the movie. I think it will be very different from the book, of course."
I think the rise of Bernie Sanders is a very good illustration of rising public awareness about inequality in the United States.
The documentary is expected to begin filming this summer. Piketty told Nonfictionfilm.com he anticipates playing a limited role in the production.
"I will be a very small part. My expectation is that they will show me what they’ve done, I will be very happy and I will not do anything except [make] a few suggestions," he said. "But really I don’t want to become a scriptwriter or moviemaker. I’m not good at that. My work is to write books. Their work is to shoot films, so my role will be very informal and I think minimal."
Nonfictionfilm.com profited from the occasion to ask Piketty about his thoughts on the U.S. presidential election, and he did not hold back.
Piketty 'endorses' Bernie Sanders
The author spoke positively of Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who is locked in a tight battle, at least in pledged delegates, with Hillary Clinton leading up to the California primary next week.
I’m not a U.S. citizen. I’m not an elector. But had I been an elector definitely I would have voted for Bernie Sanders. And I think what’s really quite impressive is the fact that we now know that they were almost 50-50 [in pledged delegates] with Hillary Clinton in spite of the fact that all the big media were entirely for Hillary Clinton and they were all very negative in their coverage of Sanders. The fact that in spite of that they were almost 50-50 I think is an incredible achievement.
Piketty looked ahead to the 2020 election and the 'next' Bernie Sanders.
What we now know, which we didn’t know before, is that [when] you have another election, another Bernie Sanders -- maybe a bit younger, maybe a bit less white or maybe more in touch with the sort of multicultural America of today -- could win the primary election and could win the [general] election and then it will really transform America and to some extent the world.
Piketty shared his thoughts on presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, a one-percenter who ironically has channelled the anger of many Americans whose economic fortunes have declined while the rich have prospered.
In the end I think he’s mostly defending the billionaire view of the world, billionaire interests. But if you want to be elected you have to pretend you are also defending the poor guy. Except that he’s defending the white poor guy... But I think even for the white, the poor white [guy] I don’t think at all that Trump will be a good deal, a good bargain. His view of the world is that you need more people like himself, more people like Trump and if you let them do their job and make money then everybody will be happy and that’s it, a very billionaire view.
Piketty did not mince words in his analysis of Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric.
The way he treats and he talks about Hispanics or the rest of the world or the Muslim, he’s just pure, pure racism. In a way it’s even worse than the extreme right in Europe because at least in Europe in terms of religious relations — Islam is almost 10 percent, eight percent of the population in countries like France and Germany, so you cannot be so extremely violent as in the U.S. where there is less than one percent of the population that is Muslim... Trump, the way he talks about Muslims, I think Marine Le Pen in France could not do that. He has a way of saying, ‘Kick them out. We don’t want them in America,' which is really frightening. So this has always been the very right wing way to address inequality, which is you focus on some homogenous or supposedly homogenous ethnic groups and you reject those groups. No, that’s really quite frightening.
Piketty told NFF he is currently focusing his attention on "emerging countries like Brazil, Mexico, Ivory Coast. India actually just released new data, income tax data on inequality two weeks ago which I had been asking for for a very long time. So one of the very positive impacts of the success of the book is that this contributed to put pressure on governments which before did not want to let me access a certain number of data sources." He continued, "I need to process the new data, understand how it was produced, so that’s what keeps me busy. It’s very exciting because it’s always a great opportunity to learn more."
Director Justin Pemberton would like some of Piketty's time for the documentary. "Certainly I want him to be talking in the film, yes," he told NFF.
Pemberton said there is no projected completion date for the movie version of "Capital in the 21st Century."
"I do have a big task in front of me, but an exciting one. It's a challenge that I actually think is a thrill. And I'm not just saying that," Pemberton said. "I actually think taking a 700 page economic text and making it into an entertaining movie is a challenge that I absolutely want to do."
The book argues the post World War II economic boom in the United States, which led to a dynamic expansion of the middle class, was but a historical blip, and that we've gone back down the path of wealth concentrated in the hands of the few. "Capital in the 21st Century" makes use of many graphs and tables to illustrate its argument, but Pemberton doesn't see those as key to his film.
"I think the sense of wonder in the [book] is the fact that it spans centuries and also it gives us a hint of where things might go or could go," he told NFF. "I think that that is the essence of the story. And that's where the wonder lies. I don't think it is in graphics and graphs and formulas."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.