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Yannick Kergoat has heard all about why people don't want to watch a movie about money — especially from money people. The French filmmaker had trouble getting funding and TV pickup for his new documentary about tax evasion, "Tax Me If You Can."
In an email conversation through his translator, Kergoat says he was told by a TV channel, "people are not interested in tax evasion."
The TV channel was wrong. Kergoat and his team ran a crowdfunding campaign to make the film, and over 4,600 people backed it. "Tax Me If You Can" even made its North American premiere at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto.
In "Tax Me If You Can," Kergoat connects billionaires evading taxes to regular people. He uses colorful animations to illustrate how shell companies operate. He puts fiscal experts in front of a cheesy beach and palm tree backdrop as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the tropical islands often used as tax havens. He pretends you're in a bar to show you news footage about why the US is the country losing the most tax revenue because of tax evasion.
"The idea isn't to give a lesson to students by telling absolute truths in a professorial tone," Kergoat says via translation in the film's press kit. "It was important to approach this eminently political subject with a certain freedom of tone, and above all, with humor."
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"The Big Short," "The Wolf of Wall Street," and even "Tax Me If You Can" are all about how rich guys get their money. But most of us watching these films aren't part of that financial elite and don't fully grasp the influence the richest 1% have in their lives.
Scott Houser, an economics pedagogy expert and the department head of economics and business at Colorado School of Mines. saw this first-hand when he was teaching his film course in Fresno. He showed his students "The Grapes of Wrath" to teach them about recessions, fiscal policies, and business cycles. It turns out that a third of his students' grandparents had migrated to California during the Great Depression because of drought in the Dust Bowl, just like the Joad family. But it wasn't until they saw the movie that they understood that economics is the reason they live in California!
Houser never thought he would see the "It's a Wonderful Life" bank run scene in the real world. Then, Silicon Valley Bank collapsed and life imitated art.
"The Gordon Gekkos of the world affect the lives of the worker," Houser says. "Thinking broadly about economics and then seeing that in film can change the way people look at their own lives, so they can look at their savings account."
When he taught at California State University of Fresno in 2003, Houser co-created one of the first courses that used films to teach students about economic principles.
Houser's course included movies like "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Office Space" to teach students about banking and economics of scale, respectively. He and his co-professor Don Leet wrote a paper about how their students had a better grasp on economic principles than students in a control class.
Though it was only a one-time study and a small sample size, Houser still believes that film can be a powerful way to teach students and the public about economic and financial principles.
"Film does that really well because it gives an opportunity for students to apply their learning about some economic concept to something maybe they haven't experienced themselves, but that they can see," Houser says. "They have some emotional engagement with the material."
With "Tax Me If You Can," Kergoat overtly set out to make a film that made people think about how the economic policies dictated by the one percent affects them. He wanted the movie to "fight back."
"Tax evasion concerns each of us and our ability to live together," Kergoat says. The repercussions of tax evasion include "incredible increases in wealth for some and constant impoverishment for others."