IDFA 2020 review: Oeconomia (Carmen Losmann)

If one image remains from Oeconomia, Carmen Losmann’s documentary about her journey into the strategic heart of the financial world, it is the cathedrals of glass this heart is beating in. Tall office buildings with floor-to-ceiling windows that suggest great transparency. But transparency is not something that Losmann encounters a lot as she tries to get an answer to her simple question: “If you make a profit, where does that money come from?” It seems like a simple enough question, but when searching for an answer she is met with reactions ranging from downright hostility to befuddlement. Interview requests are denied, decision-making meetings are not allowed to be filmed, and the occasional executive she does get in front of the camera squirms and hides behind platitudes like ‘complexity’. Losmann’s tenacious nature, however, shows that these men (and they are almost invariably men) either don’t understand the engine that they try to keep running, or worse, see that this engine is running our world into the ground.

To be fair, the subject matter is complex, but Losmann uses easy-to-follow graphics and repetition of the key points to plot a path to ‘the elephant in the room’, as one anonymous expert calls it: what keeps the engine running and economic growth steady is debt. Without debt economic growth would not be possible, an insight that Losmann reaches about two-thirds into Oeconomia. So for continuous growth, debt within the system needs to grow too, something that has indeed been happening at an accelerated rate. The net result of this is a growing inequality of wealth between those in debt and those who make profit, with the latter group getting ever smaller. Eventually debtors will get in over their heads and need to be bailed out by governments. This requires the issuing of government bonds, which in turn are bought by large investors. That then results in the investors having leverage over governments, as they would like to see a profit on their bonds. This leads to some very unwanted consequences. For instance, a government wanting to implement durable, environment-friendly policies might get pressured by large investment parties not to do so because said policies might not be profitable. In short: unfettered capitalism is destroying the planet.

The issues Losmann highlights are the result of a system based on infinite growth in a world with finite resources. That path leads to inevitable collapse, but reducing debt within the system will also lead to collapse, a catch-22 that through Oeconomia‘s buildup starts to dawn on the viewer once Losmann gets to an interview with a top executive at PIMCO (the world’s largest global investment management firm). He acknowledges the flaw in the system and compares capitalism’s run to a football match. A match in which we are heading into the final quarter, by his estimate, a thought that does not give much hope for the future. Can we think of alternatives before the clock runs out?

Losmann’s juxtaposition of the cold financial world of glass and the natural world that it is destroying is a realization that comes late in the film but hits home. She smartly builds Oeconomia as if it was a spy thriller – in part out of necessity because many people only wanted to speak to her in private, which means that telephone conversations are done by voice actors – but also because of her musical choices and the sleek sound editing. Combined with the film’s methodical and thoroughly researched approach, in which she lays out a complex story by moving forward through logical conclusion and simple vocabulary, this makes Oeconomia a film that still requires full attention but manages to explain the mad nature of our economic system to a layman like yours truly. In these cathedrals of glass, sacrificial lambs (i.e. the general public) are slaughtered on the altar of growth. But what happens if the world runs out of lambs?