Filmmaker puts American debt in Sundance spotlight

PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - “I.O.U.S.A.” may not be the sexiest film at the Sundance Film Festival, but it could be the most timely as the documentary about deepening U.S. debt problems debuted in a week of tumbling financial markets and heightened fears of recession.

Concord Coalition executive director Bob Bixby (L) and Comptroller General of the U.S. Dave Walker are pictured in the documentary film " I.O.U.S.A." from director Patrick Creadon, in this undated publicity photograph. REUTERS/Agoura Entertainment/Handout

Director Patrick Creadon, who made The New York Times crossword puzzle fun on film in his documentary “Wordplay,” calls “I.O.U.S.A.” a primer for ordinary Americans on the financial state of an economy saddled by a rapidly growing federal debt.

“It is a scary story made more scary by the fact that most people in America don’t understand what the problems are,” Creadon told Reuters. “We think our country is in a lot of trouble.”

If Americans don’t stop spending beyond their means, Creadon says the country faces an economic disaster of epic proportions in which the government cannot honour its obligations, like bond payments and Social Security benefits.

“I.O.U.S.A.”, based on the book “Empire of Debt,” may be to the U.S. economy what “An Inconvenient Truth” was to the environment. The Oscar-winning documentary premiered two years ago at Sundance, the top venue for independent film and documentaries.

In “An Inconvenient Truth,” former Vice President Al Gore offered his touring slideshow on global warming and made a compelling case for people to push their politicians to pass legislation to help clean the environment.

Similarly, “I.O.U.S.A.” teaches its lessons on America’s perilous economic future by featuring the “fiscal wake-up tour” spearheaded by U.S. Comptroller General David Walker on a speaking tour in dozens of cities.


It also brings in leading economic figures like billionaire investor Warren Buffett and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill to sound their warnings, and it creates some comic moments with clips from comedian Steve Martin.

While making the film in 2006, Creadon and his team had to deal with the rapid deterioration of the U.S. economy as the subprime mortgage lending crisis hit major banks and sent home foreclosure rates soaring.

As a result, many of the documentary’s doomsday scenarios, which had been discussed in future tense, were actually happening as they edited the movie.

“In September, we threw the movie out and started again,” said Executive Producer Addison Wiggin, also co-author of “Empire of Debt.”

“I.O.U.S.A.” does not have a distribution yet, although negotiations are taking place at Sundance. But Creadon hopes the film will reach a wide audience in this presidential election year and that people can go to the polls to choose a leader more informed about the economy.

For all the film’s doom and gloom, Creadon believes catastrophe can be averted by presidents who will take the unpopular road of raising taxes and cutting spending.

“No one on this team is willing to throw in the towel,” said Creadon.

Yet the film’s final note is a sombre one: As of January 19, the U.S. federal debt stood at $9.2 trillion, and the debt went up by $86 million in the 85 minutes it took to watch the film.

(Editing by David Wiessler)

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