Documentary Site started as an outlet for my interests in documentary 15 years ago. Since then, my presence has expanded to writing, managing Twitter fans, and connecting with makers, promoters, and fans of documentary. Probably three of the coolest things to come from this endeavor are being invited to write for POV, visiting Kartemquin studios, and leading a discussion after a screening of The Trials of Muhammad Ali. My current project involves watching and writing about 365 documentaries in 2014. Feel free to send along your suggestions via Twitter @documentarysite!

#365Docs: Maxed Out (46/365) & We’re Not Broke (47/365)

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I’m watching 365 documentaries and writing about each one in 2014. Tweet your suggestions to @documentarysite, or send an e-mail to hmcintosh@documentarysite.com. Read more.

Note: This post may contain spoilers.

Maxed Out (2006) and We’re Not Broke (2012) present David-and-Goliath stories of major corporations against American consumers. In both these documentaries, Goliath wins at David’s expense.

James Scurlock’s Maxed Out uncovers the ways in which the industry puts the screws to the consumers. Some ways might seem obvious: high fees, higher interest rates. Others are less obvious and, as implied by this documentary, morally questionable, such as targeting those who declare bankruptcy for another credit card.

Some of the interviews in Maxed Out appalled me, in particular the ones with the collections company people. The company buys up debts and then calls people to collect. They use techniques such as embarrassing them, harassing them, calling their neighbors or relatives, and others. On the flip side, the pawn shop owner proves a more sympathetic interview in that he explains how people use his shop almost as a bank.

The human cost to these corporations’ practices runs high. Some people lose their homes after refinancing. Others face bankruptcy. The most extreme cases sadly have committed suicide.

Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes’s We’re Not Broke (2012) exposes how multinational corporations such as General Electric, Verizon, and Bank of America dodge paying U.S. taxes through techniques such as transfer pricing practices and lobbying. Though these companies post profits in the billions, they pay nothing in taxes. As a result, spending cuts threaten public services, and the tax burden shifts to the middle class and small business owners.

While the experts tell the tax story in We’re Not Broke, a group called U.S. Uncut offers the grassroots organization story. Using social media, U.S. Uncut organizes different movements across the country to protest these corporations’ nonpayment of their taxes.

Both documentaries use the expected techniques with expert and everyday person interviews and archival footage. Maxed Out is more accessible in its argument due to how easily many people can identify with it. We’re Not Broke offers more of a challenge due to the complexities of tax laws and overall how the systems work. The experts do try and break it down, but one interview subject notes that the U.S. tax code runs 72,000 pages, which only hints at the depths of this complexity.

With such depths of information in both these documentaries, not surprisingly content takes priority over style. This disparity seems to happen too often in documentary, and sometimes they run together as a result. But then again I suppose not everyone watches so many at one time.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site as a resource for documentary media and has greatly enjoyed the connections it has fostered over the years.