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.
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.
Here is my interview with Pemberton in Worth, where he talks about making the movie–and how Piketty’s ideas have become part of the US presidential election debate this year.