System Error (Icarus Films, NR)

System Error, the latest documentary by Florian Opitz (The Big Sellout, Speed: In Search of Lost Time), arrives in the U.S. at a particularly apt time. It was originally released in Germany in 2018, when U.S. unemployment was around 4% and the Dow-Jones average was over 26,000—at which point few Americans would have been receptive to the message of this film, because who wants to criticize the economic system when it’s working for you? (Of course, it wasn’t working for everyone even then, but the people left out were the people who are usually left out, and whose voices are seldom considered.)

It’s quite a different story at the end of April in 2020, with unemployment over 20% (on pace to beat out the worst year of the Great Depression), and the Dow dipping below 19,000 just over a month ago. Yes, we’re in the midst a global pandemic, but the occurrence of such pandemics is both predictable and inevitable, while the economic effects of a pandemic are partly the result of choices made by our leaders. Since a lot of Americans are now hurting who are not used to being in that condition, they’re more likely to be willing to take a hard look at some of the assumptions under which our economy functions, and to consider alternatives, than they would have been just a few months ago.

Enter System Error, a combination editorial and illustrated lecture from someone who hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid about how a rising tide lifts all boats, and wants you to understand why. There’s no two-sides-ism in this film, which is refreshing: most documentaries have a point of view, but many tediously pretend they don’t, while this one wastes no time letting you know exactly where it’s coming from.

Opitz organizes System Error around several key topics and moments in time, each section opening with a quote from Karl Marx. The first segment  asks when GDP (gross domestic product) became the dominant measure of the health or strength of an economy. The answer may surprise you—while the concept dates back to the 17th century, the GDP achieved its current status toward the end of World War II, when the Bretton Woods Conference made it the standard for evaluating a country’s economy. While that decision may have made sense at the time, the continued use of this shorthand measurement, along with the assumption that economic growth could and should continue without limit, seems remarkably unsophisticated given the 70+ years that have passed since 1944. Yet variations on the theme “growth is good” are echoed again and again by interview subjects throughout System Error. This may not be surprising, given what is taught in the standard economics curriculum, and is even less surprising when you consider that the (mainly white and male) people interviewed are for the most part doing very well by that assumption.

Other topics covered in System Error include the development of monetarism following the global slump due to the 1970s oil crisis, the deregulation of financial markets and the rise of Michael Bloomberg’s media empire in the 1980s, the banking crisis of 2008, and the “flash crash” of 2010. In pursuit of these topics, the film takes us to, among other places, a soybean farm in the former rainforest of Mato Grosso, Brazil, a factory-style poultry operation, a highly-automated Audi plant, and (of course) Wall Street. Except for some sad scenes of pollution (not counted in GDP, and hence often treated as irrelevant), everything looks great, courtesy of cinematographer Andy Lehman and some impressive shots of the earth from the International Space Station. British economist Tim Jackson, head of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity, pops up at regular intervals to offer an alternative perspective to the chorus of unlimited growth cheerleaders (including a baby-faced Donald Trump from the days when he was known only as a real-estate speculator).

System Error is a skillfully constructed traditional documentary, weaving together narration (by Opitz, who also wrote the screenplay), interview segments, and archival and newly-shot footage. It will best serve viewers who are at least willing to consider alternatives to the assumptions that underlie the way our economy is organized, and it’s hard to imagine anyone not open to that point of view being willing to spend their time watching it. | Sarah Boslaugh

System Error is distributed on DVD and VOD by Icarus Films. I viewed the streaming version, which looks and sounds great even on an 11” laptop screen.

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