BILL MOYERS: When director Jacob Kornbluth screened his new movie at the Sundance Film Festival, his heart soared from the response, rave reviews, the special jury prize and a deal to distribute the film in theatres across the country. Now you might think it must be all about sex, spies and suspense. But you would be wrong.
It's about inequality. Yes, inequality, why the rich are getting richer and you aren't. The film's title is Inequality for All and in it, economic analyst Robert Reich tells us how he got to this difficult, terrible place and what we can do to get out of it. Jacob Kornbluth is the film’s director. He's based in Berkeley, California and has been a fellow at both the Sundance Directing and Screenwriting Labs. A video series he developed for MoveOn.org and The Nation magazine was the inspiration for Inequality for All. Jacob, welcome.
JACOB KORNBLUTH: Thank you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: It's amazing how you've taken a dry subject like inequality and made it work in a compelling, even exciting and as one reviewer said, chilling way. How did you do it?
JACOB KORNBLUTH: Well, it's funny. After our first screening at Sundance, somebody in the audience stood up and raised their hand and they said, "I'm embarrassed to say this, but I laughed and I cried at a film about the economy. Did anybody else feel this way?" And she turned around sheepishly and half the audience raised their hand.
And that was first of all, a very important moment for me, because my goal with this was to make a film that wasn't just for people who love economics or love politics. It was to make sure that everyone, the people who don't normally consume this information, can hopefully have a way into getting this information and understanding it. And that means making it a fun movie to watch on some level.
That doesn't mean it-- to take anything away from how important this topic is or how important it is that, Professor Reich, that we show how he speaks truth to power and really lays out the issue in a way that I feel like is hard-hitting and serious. But on the same time, you want to watch a movie that you can experience as a film. And that was important to me. And I felt that we achieved that and that was a big accomplishment.
BILL MOYERS: When you say experience as a film, what are you saying?
JACOB KORNBLUTH: When I say experience as a film, I mean, a film transports you on a journey. I consider it a transformation machine, you know. You go inside a film and then you come out changed. And it's important to me that when people think they understand the issue of income inequality, that they go into this film and come out with a new understanding. I didn't want to tell-- make a film that it felt like a rehash for people who have heard a lot, frankly, at this point about income inequality. I wanted to make a film that felt new. And that changed the way you think about it.
BILL MOYERS: You and Bob Reich colluded, I almost said conspired-- on some short videos that took off, virtually took off on the web and then went viral. And when I saw one of them, I remembered something that the novelist Saul Bellow said to me back in 1984. He said, "Moyers, no one will be heard in the future who doesn't speak in short bursts of truth." And I thought those short videos you and-- and Bob did really confirmed that point.
But here, you turn around and do a, what, 86 minute film, 90 minute film defying the technique you use for short videos.
JACOB KORNBLUTH: I'll tell you. The videos were inspired by my desire to understand economics in a way that, like I said, somebody who's not an economic like me could get. I felt like I was trapped in the 24 hour news cycle, people telling me the right wing says this and the left wing says this and they're yelling at each other. And I can't tell what anything means.
So I found myself constantly in debates with people, when I was just hearing party lines, essentially. Here's what I think if you're a Democrat. Here's what I think if you're a Republican. But I didn't have a deep understanding of things. So I wanted to make videos for me, to kind of get to know this stuff.
BILL MOYERS: You're the son of an English teacher. What was your background?
JACOB KORNBLUTH: Well, I am somewhat unique in those who make documentaries in that I grew up very poor. My father passed away when I was young. And my mother raised me and my siblings on a salary that normally ranged between $9000 and $15,000 a year. And I know this because I had to turn in a form every year to the school to get free lunches and it lists what you made in the previous year on that form.
And my friends knew it because I got those free lunches in the classroom. But I never felt poor, really. And it's weird to use the term poor. What I felt was proud of my-- what I considered at the time working-class roots. And
I felt like education was always my way out.
I always believed that I could make something of myself. I had that, in some fundamental way, the American dream that I think so many people have. And-- but I was keenly aware of who gets what and why. I always paid attention to that. I was never a political person when I was a young man, because I was a little bit cynical about my ability to change anything.
And I didn't want to convince anybody with didactic arguments. I wanted to talk about character. I wanted to talk about people. I wanted to talk about what I considered to be that special bit that makes human beings interesting, the complexity of it all. And it wasn't until I grew up a little bit and I looked around at the world evolving in a way that I wasn't quite so happy with.
And I realized that-- and I started making those short videos with Reich, that I decided this has-- I have to make something. I have to do something. There's nothing-- I realize that peo-- there was an audience for this stuff, that there were more people like me who would want to know the kind of simple story and I thought, There's nothing else I could think of to do.
BILL MOYERS: You had the raise the money for this. So you had to go around to what kind of people?
JACOB KORNBLUTH: Well, two very interesting parts of raising the money. First was Kickstarter. And we-- if you look at our credits, we say, Thank you to the many and the 1% and the 99% who supported this film. And there's about I think there's over 1000 names there.
BILL MOYERS: So you raised money there.
JACOB KORNBLUTH: We raised some, but that was a small fraction of what we needed.
BILL MOYERS: And then?
JACOB KORNBLUTH: And then we went to wealthy individuals who could help fund it. And what's fascinating about it, including the wealthy individual who's in the film—
BILL MOYERS: Nick Hanaeur.
JACOB KORNBLUTH: Nick Hanaeur.
BILL MOYERS: Seattle, Washington.
JACOB KORNBLUTH: From Seattle--
BILL MOYERS: Pillow CEO, made a fortune in the pillow business right?
JACOB KORNBLUTH: That's right. When you-- but there's a lot of people who made a lot of money who think this widening economic inequality is bad for them and it's bad for the economy. And that's a big concept in the movie, the sense that often, it's portrayed as, you know, we're taking money from the rich and we're giving it to the poor. You know, let's get angry with these folks or, you know, sort of this animus that comes up in this discussion of inequality. It's us versus them, depending on what side you're on.
And the reframing of that discussion too, wouldn't it be good for the whole economy? Wouldn't it be good for this wealthy guy, Nick Hanaeur, and these other wealthy individuals if they had more customers with money to buy their stuff? And Nick Hanaeur's perspective, the guy in the film, his perspective is that, "Look, if-- if my customers have more money, my skill as a businessman will show through clearer. I can make more money and also my cleverness as a businessman will be more evident.” So it-- we went to the folks who believe that message. And who are wealthy as well. And thank goodness, there are some, or else there would be no film today.
Exactly, but tell me about the middle class family that you had early in the film. How did you know them? How did you find them?
JACOB KORNBLUTH: Well, one interesting question is, how do you illustrate through personal story the struggle of the middle class? And when you think about that as a filmmaker, you look around and the whole world seems like a potential subject. There's so many middle class people struggling in so many ways. And ways that are often silent, like they don't even like to talk about out loud, just the way that they're sort of-- they don't feel like they're getting ahead in how they're measuring up to their parents, if you're my age.
It seems like to people in my generation-- and maybe they had just an easier run and it's just gonna be harder on us going forward. The people we ended up focusing on were ones that had some connection to Bob Reich as he moved around in the world.
And it turns out there's-- one of the students in his class was a guy who wasn't the normal college age and who had gone back to school to try and make something of himself, after getting laid off as a manager at Circuit City. And I found his story to be compelling, because he didn't feel terrible about himself in that circumstance. He thought he was making himself better. It wasn't the sort of traditional-- I don't want to-- you know, all sad story. He felt hopeful about his future. But man, they were struggling.
They had-- you know, $25 in their checking account when I talked to them one day. And you think about the-- the economics of that on a Wednesday, when you know you're gonna get paid Friday and you have 25 bucks to get there. And she's doing the math. She's, like, "I got a full tank of gas, so I don't need to get gas before Friday. I got some food in the pantry. I think I can make it. But $25. If anything goes wrong here, what am I goning to do?" That's pretty typical of some of the pain, I think, that some of the middle-class families we ran into were feeling. And they just turned out to be the ones that we focused on.
BILL MOYERS: Has this family seen the film yet?
JACOB KORNBLUTH: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: What was their reaction, if I may ask?
JACOB KORNBLUTH: You may. I was terrified to show the film to the people in it, because inevitably, you're making choices about people's lives, but I can tell you that their concern was or my concern was that they wouldn't feel like they were presented with dignity, because I feel like a lot of the people who are suffering at all or expose any of their-- their trial and tribulations feel vulnerable when they tell you those stories. It's a real burden as a filmmaker to-- you carry around as-- to represent people's lives accurately. And I felt like-- they felt proud of seeing themselves in the film and I think he realized that we-- which-- maybe they didn't realize in the making of the film that we weren't after just the sad sack stories. We're looking for stories that people can relate to, the sort of-- that everybody goes through.
BILL MOYERS: What did you learn about inequality that you didn't know going in?
JACOB KORNBLUTH: How about everything would be the simple answer. First of all, I knew about it as something to be angry about. I know I'm angry that inequality is raging. That was as far as I had gotten. Those rich guys are probably mean, you know, was kind of where my understanding got. Now it got more sophisticated than that, but if I could boil it down, it was something like that.
And what really got me about the argument that we presented was although it's a deeply moral question, inequality and you've talked about this before. I've heard you talk about the morality of income inequality. Although it is a deeply moral question, the argument in the film is that it's an economic one as well.
And that-- and it's one that's bad for our society as well. And it's bad for our politics as well. So when people are angry about the political polarization and they say, "Man, nothing can get done." And when they're angry about their communities feeling like they're pulling apart a little bit, like they're not connected with their neighbors in the way that maybe they remember growing up. And they just feel, like, "Maybe society isn't as cohesive as it used to be, that the underlying sort of foundation of that problem is maybe the way our economy is organized." And not only is that bad for our economy, but it's bad for our society and for our politics, but maybe if we restructure it, our economy could do better too.
It's not that the rich should be afraid of this. And it's not that we should be necessarily framing this as a fight against the rich. That's a massive paradigm shifting way of looking at inequality for me. And I hope it is for everybody else who sees the movie.
BILL MOYERS: I think you will succeed. It's a marvelous, informative, exhilarating, fun and frightening film. And I congratulate you, Jacob Kornbluth and Robert Reich, for your collaboration and your success.
JACOB KORNBLUTH: Well, thank you, Bill. It was an absolute honor to meet with you and talk to you.
BILL MOYERS: Good luck to you.
JACOB KORNBLUTH: Thank you.