Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: Analyzing the Economic Meltdown

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Last October, I railed about how there was a dearth of doc filmmakers tackling the current economic meltdown, pointing out that the usually on-the-ball PBS Frontline series wasn’t stepping into the void. Well, they finally answered the call a couple of weeks ago. And boy, did they present a grim picture.

Frontline's Inside the MeltdownI found Frontline’s “Inside the Meltdown” to be some compelling viewing. Some might say that it is just a rehash of events, but it’s well told, and it goes so far as to suggest that some of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s actions were personally motivated. I really appreciated their strategies of compensating for a lack of visuals with shots of menacing-looking town cars slinking around Manhattan, and black & white pictures of Paulson looking suitably grim and culpable. You can watch the film online here.

When I told my friends at POV that I was planning to write about the Frontline episode, they suggested I also take a look at a little viral video called “The Crisis of Credit Visualized” that also tackles the subject:

The Crisis of Credit Visualized

“The Crisis of Credit Visualized” by Jonathan Jarvis

And I have to say, it sort of puts the Frontline episode to shame. This little 11-minute animated film was made by Jonathan Jarvis, who completed it as part of his thesis work in the Media Design Program, a graduate studio at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. This writer/director/animator/sound editor/jack-of-all-trades has done more with his 11 minutes, and what I can only imagine was a fairly small budget to create something truly memorable. And judging by the number of views and comments on YouTube (more than 300,000) and on Jarvis’ site (another 300,000-plus), it’s making a significant impact.

I know comparing these two forms of filmmaking/documenting is a little unfair; in fact it might be best to see them as the best of their kind, complementing each other. And I might as well add the radio episodes on This American Life: “The Giant Pool of Money” and
“Another Frightening Show About the Economy.” So it looks like there isn’t such a void after all.

One point of mystery I should add, however, is that it appears that the Frontline episode and Jarvis’ film both debuted on the exact same day: February 17. Was that just a coincidence? Some smart guerilla deployment by Jarvis? Mr. Jarvis, care to explain?

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Jonathan Jarvis

    FOREIGNID: 18209
    Ha! Thanks for the review, Tom. To be honest, it was only after a few days that the frontline episode came to my attention (I thought it was fantastic, btw.) Those zoom-ins on Paulson’s eyes are classic!
    I’m glad to see different media tackling the issue, as each one has its own affordances to inform and educate (and hopefully entertain), as well as its own audience. I hope to see more “creatives” focusing on economics, as I believe they have something beneficial to offer.

  • Theresa

    FOREIGNID: 18210
    This past Saturday’s This American Life show featured another segment entitled “Bad Banks” that provided a great explanation of the current banking crisis deciphering current buzzwords like “toxic loans” and “zombie banks.” You can find it at this URL:

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 18211
    Well Jonathan, then that begs the question: are you interested in making a feature documentary, or do you like to keep things shorter and “creative”? If a feature is in your future, what kind of doc would you like to make? Anything in the works? Heck, I’d like to see it.

  • Andrew Saladino

    FOREIGNID: 22153
    Haha I really would like to hear Mr. Jarvis’ response to this. I doubt that it was just a coincidence!