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Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century is Now a Movie

Director Justin Pemberton talks to Worth about making the best-selling book into a movie.

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Update: Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Capital in the Twenty-First Century will receive a virtual theatrical opening on Friday, May 1 via Kino Marquee, a new initiative that creates “virtual cinemas” for temporarily closed independent theaters.

New Zealand filmmaker Justin Pemberton had just finished a documentary for a local TV station about the problem of income inequality when French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a book detailing the wealth inequality of two centuries of capitalism, became a runaway hit.

Pemberton, who had long had a passion for economics, politics and psychology—which he had studied at university—dived right into the book. “I was fascinated by the massive time horizon,” he says. Capital tells the story of money and wealth from the 18th century to the present, detailing revolutions, depressions and wars—and piercing the widely accepted view that the accumulation of capital and social progress are entwined. Practically unheard of for an economics text, Capital hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list in 2014, selling millions of copies.

“This is the film I want to make,” Pemberton says he decided, but he wasn’t alone. Piketty, himself a film buff, wanted to do a popular culture version of the book, and several producers were pitching for the rights. Eventually, Piketty chose New Zealand producer Matthew Metcalfe, and Pemberton was hired as the director. Piketty liked the idea of the story of European and American capital being told by “outsiders, people from the bottom of the world,” says the director.

Pemberton might have seemed an odd choice, having focused on sports for two prior documentaries, including one about New Zealand rugby star Richie McCaw, called Chasing Great. But Pemberton believes its huge success helped him land the gig.

His most recent film, a 2016 documentary called I Spy (With My Five Eyes), was about the Five Eyes intelligence network between the U.S., the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. “In many ways that protest was kind of a dry run for Capital. I didn’t have Capital in mind at that point, but it was done in the same way where I found interesting storytellers and interviewed them from around the world and then tried to visualize imagery to help tell the story.”

Both Piketty and Pemberton were born in 1971, which meant they came of age just as the Soviet Union was crumbling and free markets were reigning supreme.

Pemberton says he didn’t have a particular ideological bent at the time, but reality hit him hard. “I was 18, and when I started university it was free in New Zealand. Then there was a neo-liberal movement switch across New Zealand, and by the time I finished university we had student loans. I suddenly had debt. I had never even had a job. And it really felt like we were going into a different world.”

The movie Capital in the Twenty-First Century had its North American premiere at DocNYC, New York’s documentary film festival, in November and is scheduled for wide release in the spring of 2020.

Justin Pemberton

Pemberton recently talked with Worth about making Capital, and how Piketty’s ideas—like a wealth tax—have become part of political conversation, including among candidates for the 2020 presidential election.

Q: It is fascinating that an economic tome by Thomas Piketty has become such a bestseller that it’s now a movie. What is interesting to me about him is that he isn’t just doing the dry statistical economic modeling, but also doing economic history.

A: Thomas sees himself as a social scientist. That was one of the first things he said to me, that he was a social scientist and the economics should be a social science. It’s called Capital in the Twenty-First Century, but it is a book about history.

It’s also a very technical subject that you and he made accessible. How did you go about thinking about that? Do you sit down with him and say, “We need to have shots of the French Revolution?”

The first thing I did was reread the book, and I started making notes, pulling out all the things that he talks about—like Jane Austen. And then I did a timeline and started thinking why don’t we follow the actual path of the wealth through time? Then I wrote that out into three acts and that went to Thomas.

He was really supportive, and there was a fabulous email that came back that said; “I think I’m going to love the movie very much.” We would always talk about who would tell this story. I think when I first met him, he said, “I don’t think I want to, I shouldn’t be in the movie,” which was obviously a fright because he had to be in the movie.

One of the things that was interesting is you start with the collapse of communism and the idea that its demise sort of let markets run wild. But there isn’t much mention of communism in the movie.

Thomas doesn’t really talk a lot about communism in the book. The reason I wanted to start that way was to show that he wasn’t protesting capitalism and capital in favor of something else. I mean, it’s amazing how so many people still missed that point. They still insist that he’s saying communism is a better alternative, which he’s absolutely not saying.

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The ideas that Piketty expresses have been front and center ever since the Occupy Movement following the financial crash of 2008. Do you think that’s part of why the book has been so popular?

It may be the reason it’s popular. But Thomas had been writing this book for 10 years.

I saw “1%” splashed across the screen, going back in history. Was this an attempt to tie the present to the past?

The one percent slogan actually comes from French Revolution. That’s where the Occupy Movement got it from. I didn’t know that until I started making this film, but that was one of the things Thomas told me. In Paris just before World War I, 1 percent of the people owned 70 percent of the land. One of the things he found most alarming is that the level of inequality in America and in Britain today is at the same levels it was in France and Britain before World War I.

What do you think is the most important idea in the film?

What I think is crucial is the influence that capital has over politics—which is undermining democracy and is the reason problems can’t be solved. But people want them solved. It is the reason that climate change isn’t being addressed—not only not being addressed but actually being dismissed all over the world. The other point is tax. A small local business has to pay tax and yet multinationals have what you can call abnormal profits because they are tax free.

What’s the solution?

Financial technology can solve these things. If you look at anti money laundering laws, they are actually employing technology to follow the flow of cash and to identify who’s behind it.

There’s another part in the movie that I’d like for you to describe a little bit, which is the Monopoly game. Who is the person who did that?

His name’s Paul Piff, he’s a sociology professor at the University of California, and he has studied the psychology of inequality.

Can you explain what the study is?

He rigs the game of Monopoly. One player is a rich player, and the other is a poor player. The rich player has two times the amount of money to throw so he moves around a little faster, gets two dice and gets $200 by passing go, whereas the poor player only has one die and gets only $100.

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How is it determined who is rich?

A flip of a coin. So, it’s random who’s rich and who’s poor, and very quickly the behaviors start to change. The rich players eat more, physically they move around the board more noisily. They talk about how well they’re doing; they laugh at the poor players’ misfortune. Most importantly, at the end when asked why they won this obviously rigged game, not one of them ever says that they won because they had two dice and because they had twice as much money. Not one, not one in any study that’s ever being done says that they won the game because it was rigged.

What’s the significance of this study?

We translate the feeling of being better off than someone else to actually being better than them, and that’s a pretty serious social consequence. Everybody who’s successful has had good fortune. I mean a good idea can be and should be rewarded but there’s a point to which it’s excessive and ridiculous, and then when you’re actually actively working to not partake in society.

If you look at Bill Gates, he’s one of the world’s richest men, and when he started his company in the 1970s, taxes were incredibly high—70-something percent in America at that point. He started that in an environment that he now is claiming would be very detrimental to business. Or Google, in particular—a lot of the technology it benefits from was publicly funded, and there’s nothing flying back into ecosystem. I’d say that of course it’s great that people have great ideas and are successful. But they’ve had a lot of help.

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Piketty is a proponent of the wealth tax, which has now become a big issue in the presidential campaign, as it’s one of the plans promoted by senator Elizabeth Warren. Does that surprise you?

I’m surprised by how quickly these conversations have come up. Two years ago, they weren’t on the radar, but now they are actually in popular debate in the American household, and it’s amazing.

Two of the economists who worked with Piketty are now teaching at Berkeley.  

One of them is Gabriel Zucman, who’s in the film. He elegantly gives us the solution—that tax should be paid in the place where the customers are, not the place where you can scoot your profits to hide.

So it’s not as impossible as we often are told?

There’s a slightly depressing but also hopeful statistic. Public discourse and public attention usually predate change in laws by 20 years. What I want to do is start to get people thinking how it’s time to change, how it’s time to create something new—in the same way that free education and free healthcare were seen as ridiculous in the 18th and 19th century.

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