Tribeca: Recession On The Screen

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The year's biggest news story - the sinking of the global economy - is beginning to be seen on the silver screen at the Tribeca Film Festival. These films constitute the first wave of what's sure to be a glut of recession-themed films.

"What's happened changes everything," says Leslie Cockburn, who co-directed the documentary "American Casino" with husband Andrew. "You'll see it in large numbers of films."

"American Casino" is an in-depth examination of the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the dubious derivatives market that inflated real estate. It's ultracurrent because the filmmakers began making it in January 2008 - long before their subject became big news.

Leslie Cockburn, a veteran investigative journalist formerly of CBS and PBS, says they decided "to just take the plunge because it seemed like this could be a huge story."

The film ultimately explains the origins of the financial crisis. More so than most media coverage of the crisis, the film points out the racial side of subprime mortgages, noting that blacks were four times as likely to be put into subprime mortgages.

"American Casino" is current enough that before it's released theatrically this fall, Cockburn says she'll need to update several figures in the film - which have grown even more dismal since they finished editing.

Steven Soderbergh's film "The Girlfriend Experience" uses the financial crisis as a backdrop. The famously fast-working Soderbergh ("Ocean's Eleven," "Out of Sight") made it in New York during an October week last fall.

In "The Girlfriend Experience," adult film star Sasha Grey plays a high-class escort who services mostly Wall Street brokers stressed by their steep losses. One remarks: "Everybody's hurting right now."

"That will be relevant for a while," says Soderbergh, who made the film with mostly nonprofessional actors and encouraged them to improvise.

"We cast people who are in the same situations as the characters," says Soderbergh. "I would encourage these people just to talk about what was on their minds. Invariably, it was money. The same conversations were going on around the crew, as well."

Soderbergh considers the film a "fictionalized documentary," a snapshot of a "very thin slice of culture in Manhattan."

The director laments that more filmmakers don't take advantage of newer technologies to work quicker, both in production and in distribution. "The Girlfriend Experience" will be released in late May both in limited theaters and on the cable station HDNet - his second in a deal for six films to be released in such a way. (His first was 2005's "Bubble.")

Soderbergh explains the appeal of ripped-from-the-headlines movies:

"I feel like art should either have total perspective, meaning you're portraying something so far in the past that you really can see all of the moving parts of it. Or it should have no perspective at all, where it's so in the middle of what's going on and there's no attempt to contextualize it."

Sometimes, though, times move too fast for films. Also playing at Tribeca is "The Good Guy," which stars Scott Porter ("Friday Night Lights") as a Wall Street broker whose lies eventually undo him.

The film was made before the financial meltdown, which might as well make it from another era.

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