99 Homes (and the devil): an interview with director Ramin Bahrani

still_241851Hollywood director Ramin Bahrani describes his acclaimed film, 99 Homes, about the post-GFC housing crisis and the millions of people forced out of their homes, as a ‘Faustian – deal with the devil’ – tale.

But it’s not Faustian in the sense that many movie-goers might interpret the central plot, that of evicted homeowner Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) who goes to work for the man who foreclosed his home, corrupt, gun-toting real estate broker Rick Carver (played by the enigmatic character actor Michael Shannon).

Rather, according to Bahrani, it’s the housing system itself which is Faustian, creating unscrupulous characters like Carver, who we see in the film manipulating government and banking rules at the expense of struggling home owners to make himself rich.

“[Carver] is not such a horrible person, he is just doing what he needs to do to survive,” Bahrani told me.

“The devil is the system. It is a corrupt system.”

Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon playing opposing characters in 99 Homes.

The are of course parallels to Australia with its unscrupulous property spruikers and their get-rich-quick schemes, a housing and tax system that seemingly favours the cashed-up older generation of owners and investors at the expense of young buyers, and where tales of windowless apartments in high-rise towers and students living in tents or on bathroom floors abound.

According to Bahrani, this corruption extends beyond housing and into the wider financial and banking system, noting that both Australia (Malcolm Turnbull) and New Zealand  (John Key) have prime ministers who were former investment bankers.

“The banks were fined millions [in the wake of the financial crisis], but nobody went to jail. But if you stole a carton of orange juice, you would go to jail.

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“The people who are responsible for bankrupting the world got away with it. Nothing has changed”.

To research the film, which opened in Australia this week (November 19), Bahrani spent many hours in foreclosure courts watching the corrupt system at work as families lost their homes in snap judgements that took less than a minute

“It’s not called the rocket docket for nothing,” he said.

One day in court he observed a Hispanic family that needed an interpreter. “The judge said he had no time for an interpreter and dismissed their case – they lost their home.”

But Bahrani says the film is not about picking sides.

Researching material for the film in 2012 and 2013, Bahrani witnessed both side of the brutal US foreclosure system: the middle-cass families living in motels and the school buses that would pick up their kids from these motels as part of their morning routes, but also the sheriffs and real estate brokers “terrified about who would be on the other side of the door, when they evicted them”.

He says he did not set out to deliver a sermon or pass judgement about the real estate industry or real estate brokers but instead wanted to explore both sides of home ownership – the home as a place of “safety, community and memory” or in the case of real estate agent Rick Carver just a commodity to be “bought and sold”.

For those in Australia fruitlessly or frustratingly pursuing the housing dream or, alternatively, enjoying the riches that housing investment can bring, the parallels in Bahrani’s movie are obvious.

This article first appeared on afr.com

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How to be young and rich in Australia: be a man

How do you become young and filthy rich in Australia?

The short answer is: be a man.

Yes, be a tech whizz, a property tycoon, a retail visionary, a sports star, but most importantly, to steal a line from Canadian stand-up comedian Russell Peters, BE A MAN!

How do I know? The latest BRW Young Rich 2015, a compilation of the 100 richest Australians under 40, which came out in October, had just eight woman on it.

The all-male Top 10

2015-brw-young-rich1Source: BRW.com.au

Of those woman on the list, just four – singer Sia Furler, founder of financial counselling service My Budget, Tammy May, super model Miranda Kerr and golfing star Karrie Webb – have made their fortune entirely on their own.

The other women on the list have made their fortunes in partnerships with men: Erica Baxter through her marriage to billionaire James Packer, Erin Deering, through online bikini company Triangl founded with her husband Craig Ellis; Melanie Perkins, who set up online graphics software company Canva with Cliff Obrecht, and Michelle Strode, who co-founded technology company Invoice2go with her husband Chris.

So, making it on your own as a woman is even tougher. Having a bloke by your side helps.

I remarked about the lack of woman on the BRW list to a number of people and got pretty much the stock standard answer: woman don’t become ultra-wealthy because they are off having babies etc etc.

The truth is for all the talk in Australia about gender equality in the work place; not penalising women who want a career AND a family; lifting the proportion of women in senior position; and equal pay for men and women who do the same jobs – we still live in a very unequal business environment, where men earn the big dollars and women are expected to give it all up when they have children.

There are of course exceptions, the likes of former Westpac boss Gail Kelly, Mirvac CEO Susan Lloyd Hurwitz, and in government, deputy prime minister Julie Bishop.

But, mostly there remains the old-world misogynist view of women not rising too high in society, displayed most strikingly and distastefully in the 1423545120130attacks on Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard called a ‘bitch’, and  ‘witch’ by mostly middle-aged men in politics and the mainstream media. Julia Gillard was also judged by society – both men and women – for not having children, as if that was some kind of heinous crime, not merely a valid life choice for any woman.

This unequal belief system – that men should be the big earners, the stereotypical ‘providers’ – extends into all realms of Australian working life: I was flabbergasted to read recently that the basic contract for an Australian woman representing the national soccer team, the Matildas, is just $21,000 a year, two-thirds of the minimum wage.

This is a team, ranked 9th in the world, who beat Brazil at the World Cup this year and reached the knockout stages.

By contrast, regular members of the mens soccer team, the Socceroos, have each earn more than $200,000 so far this year, despite losing every game at the last World Cup and being ranked a lowly 65th in the world.

It’s does not surprise me at all that the Matildas have gone on strike, demanding fairer pay.

In the property industry, the sector I cover as a journalist, gender is a big, emotive issue.

Property has traditionally been a very blokey, boy’s club industry, though it’s true that efforts are being made to encourage more women into the industry, and also that there have been some notable successes in this endevour.

But still, the property industry remains dominated by outrageously wealthy men as can be seen by the number of young male property tycoons on the BRW Young Rich List  (I counted five) and the complete absence of any women property tycoons.

Supermodel Miranda Kerr

Supermodel Miranda Kerr

The other point about the type of women who make it onto the BRW Young Rich List needs to be made delicately.

In short, looks definitely matter.

This to me, only reinforces the “Crocodile Dundee” image of Australia as the land of “Bruces” and “Sheilas”, that was circulated around the world in the 1980s and later reinforced by cringeworthy iconic Australians like the late animal entertainer Steve Irwin famous for jumping on to the backs of wild animals in true Aussie macho style

While it is true that there is much that is progressive, modern fresh and exciting about Australia, it still retains a distinct air of male chauvinism and a strong underlying current of conservatism (gay marriage is another area of distinct inequality).

Real wealth and power in this country, remains in the hands of blokes, now, and, given the make-up of latest BRW Young Rich List with its tiny female representation, will remain in their hands in the future too.

My Orwellian odyssey: a descent into the fiction of George Orwell

George_Orwell_press_photoAs it happened, I was in the midst of reading “Burmese Days”, George Orwell’s very fine first novel about imperialism and prejudice set within a rural Burmese village during British rule, when the plans for “Operation Fortitude” were made public.

The press release, issued by Australian Border Force on the morning of Friday, August 28 detailed a sinister operation planned in Melbourne over the coming weekend when ABF officers would be patrolling the streets, scrutinizing everyone coming into the city centre and targeting “everything from anti-social behaviour to outstanding warrants”.

coming up for airMost ominously and invoking the dystopian world of Orwell’s 1984 with its constant surveillance and suspicion, the press release said that “ABF officers will be positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with.”

As the outrage at this trampling of individual rights (and suspicions of racial profiling) grew louder and louder, it seemed  everyone from Booker prize-winning novelist Richard Flanagan to protestors at hastily arranged gatherings were referencing Orwell or using the adjective ‘Orwellian’ to describe the planned paramilitary-style operation.

burmese daysGripped by it all, I finished reading Burmese Days and proceeded to re-read my tattered copy of Orwell’s Coming up for Air (1939) featuring my favourite Orwell anti-hero, the rotund, bald, bowler-hatted insurance salesman George Bowling who as the bomber planes fly overhead, casting shadows over London and bringing with them portents of the approaching descent into worldwide destruction and death, reminisces about his carefree youth and plans a return his countryside home town of Lower Binfield to seek out a legendary fishing spot.

keep the aspidstraNext up, I re-read Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) – also a tattered paperback on my bookshelf – about the idealistic London poet Gordon Comstock (brilliantly played by Richard E. Grant in the film version, A Merry War), who has forsaken a promising career as a copywriter in an advertising firm in order to escape the moneying world and all its artistic-destroying influences to write something that matters. We find Comstock virtually starving in his bleak bed sit in a men’s lodging house scrawling away at an epic poem he can’t seem to finish while bemoaning his poverty, which has ironically become an even greater destructive force to his writing than a well paid job as well as to his relationships and his sanity.

animal farmAfter that, I dived straight into Animal Farm (1945), Orwell’s political fairy tale about the failings of socialism set among the world of animals who overthrow their human masters only to become slaves under the control of the intelligent, cunning pigs who are “more equal than others”.

Finally, I ended my Orwellian odyssey with 1984 (written in 1949), Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece set in a futuristic London of enormous windowless government buildings, squalid tenements, always watching’ telescreens’ and posters of ‘Big Brother’, where timid revolutionary Winston Smith, an employee in the Ministry of Truth and his lover, Julie, battle the belligerent totalitarian state, its thought police, doublespeak ideology and hunger for eternal power.

1984_by_alcook-d4z39dhSo what was my Orwellian journey like?

Melancholic and depressing give the current state of the world.

As described in 1984 and Animal Farm, the loss of individual freedoms has occurred even in democratic countries like Australia, the USA and the UK, with their gag orders against speaking out against refugee abuse, surveillance and collection of meta-data and secret actions of spy agencies like the NSA and ASIO.

Imperialism and prejudice is alive and well

As in Burmese Days, which sets its modernistic central character,  35-year-old teak merchant John Flory against the bigotry within the walls of European Club, we find ourselves in an quasi-imperialist world where the richest, most powerful countries continue to oppress minority populations, invade sovereign countries at will and turn a blind eye to the consequences: thousands of displaced refugees.

“After all, natives were natives – interesting, no doubt, but finally only a ‘subject’ people, an inferior people, an inferior people with black faces” – from Burmese Days

Secondly, invigorating and wondrous. Orwell’s writing sparkles, glows and comes alive as you read it and follow the adventures and exploits of his characters. His manages to address weighty and universal themes by creating engaging characters, brilliantly plotted storylines and living, breathing places. He is a master craftsman, who true to his famous rules for writing knows that a few, carefully chosen words, expertly put together, can create vivid scenes that leaps out of the page:

In the deadly glare of the neon lights the pavements were densely crowded. Gordon threaded his way, a small shabby figure, with a pale face and unkempt hair – From Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Then there are his characters. I found myself happily inside the head of all of them, even the ones that are on the surface, unlovable like fat, unhappy George Bowling whom we find on the very first page of Coming Up for Air, locked in the bathroom of his home on a dreary London housing estate, plotting his escape from his wife and kids on a “beastly January morning”. After all, who doesn’t yearn – now and then – for a return to their youth, to a time when they were carefree and without adult responsibilities?

Similarly, I identified with the idealism of malnourished and unwashed poet Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, with his rallying against “money, money, always money” encapsulated in his distaste for the catchy slogans that hang from windswept, tattered advertising boards outside the secondhand bookshop he works in.

No doubt Gordon would find our advertising-saturated world with its sponsored content and brand placement even more nauseating as he would the greedy capitalism and worship of money that defines success today.

And then there is John Flory, the lonely, lost colonialist searching for companionship in Burmese Days who sees skin colour as a mystery to be explored and celebrated, but set against a world of cunning corruption and prejudice. One of the most tragic of Orwell’s characters, he is also one of his most loveable and most admirable.

Orwellian, as we understand it.

And then there is the sheer devastating power of 1984 and Animal Farm, whose much-discussed and debated themes of tyranny, oppression and the crushing of individualism find their reflection in the darker  actions of governments with their ‘Operation Fortitudes’, metadata laws and secrecy and in mega-corporations like Facebook and Google, now the most powerful players in the world of news, information and personal data.

Indeed, it is no surprise, that as I finished reading these five novels, I read also a review of anew theatrical version of 1984 running in Melbourne and the seemingly never ending articles about Orwell and the Orwellian – though I confess that Coming Up for Air and Keep the Aspidistra Flying are my two favourites.

Read them all!

play about 1984