Parents often tell their children that money doesn’t grow on trees, but an artist and film-maker couple want to uproot that idea by showing how people can take back control of their money and beat the banks.
Inspired by the Strike Debt movement in the US, which aims to cancel all student debt, Daniel Edelstyn and his wife Hilary Powell, embarked on a journey to highlight how the financial system has pushed us to live in a creditocracy – a world that operates on credit – rather than a democracy.
Their quest is documented in a book, Bank Job, released in September and they have just produced a documentary charting how they set up a bank, sold their own notes with the faces of local heroes and used the proceeds to purchase £1.2million of debt to blow up.
The pair aim to show just how easily money can be created and that debt can be forgiven or at least extinguished.
Film-maker Edelstyn argues that unnecessary austerity measures have created falling incomes amid rising rents and house prices that are pushing people into debt through necessity rather than frivolity, with little support if they struggle to repay.
In contrast, he argues, banks work for the benefit of their shareholders rather than their borrowers and have been able to access state bailouts when their own lending and financial management goes wrong.
Much of their motivation to challenge the status quo can be found in the pair’s upbringings.
Powell describes growing up in a tax haven in the Isle of Man and being told she didn’t fit in as she waited tables among the so-called elites while attending Oxford University.
Edelstyn’s father, George, was a famous cancer pioneer, founding Irish charity Action Cancer and was the first to promote combination chemotherapy for the disease. He is described in the book as being terrible with money and leaving the family with debts.
Despite not having a religious upbringing, Edelstyn says his father, who was Jewish, passed on the idea of responsibility and living a useful and meaningful life.
Edelstyn’s heritage is important to him and one of his previous films followed his journey tracking down his lost Jewish Ukrainian heritage and attempting to relaunch his great grandfather’s once-glorious vodka empire.
“I have tried to live up to the shadow of who my father was and take the lessons about the importance of trying to contribute,” he says. “That translates to me doing something incredibly unfeasible, like doing a film about debt.”
Just as the Bank of England can print money to boost the economy and financial institutions can be bailed out, as some were in 2008, the pair wanted to show the same can be done for the people through debt forgiveness.
Their plan to overhaul the financial system starts with opening their own bank in a former Co-operative Bank branch in Walthamstow on the aptly-named Hoe Street.
They cleverly name the bank Hoe Street Central Bank (HSCB), a clever play on words to sound like HSBC.
Rather than banknotes showing the Queen, they printed pretend money showing local heroes, including a teacher and people running food banks and charities that were displayed as works of art.
These were then sold to the public with half of the proceeds going to the causes represented by the person on the banknote and the rest to buy debt that would be written off.
“We wanted to put people on the notes who were local heroes and figures of a resistance fighting the fallout of the economic system,” Powell explains.
“People around the world were buying into an idea of economic education and being part of a movement.”
Sales of the notes raised £40,000 and they are even being used in galleries such as the V&A and British Museum.
Half of the funds were then used to buy £1.2m of payday loan debt, underlining the disconnect between the amount debt collectors pay to purchase credit and how borrowers remain liable for the full amount.
The money paid wrote off these debts, which was symbolised by exploding a Ford Transit van full of the HSCB banknotes on a piece of land at the centre of banking power, Canary Wharf. The shrapnel was also put on display at HSCB.
But is blowing up debt really the answer to clearing personal and public deficits? “We know the debt buy isn’t a solution,” Edelstyn explains. “It’s a lightning rod to expose the shadows of the financial system, the secondary markets and the injustices of the economy.”
Edelstyn says the pandemic has shown the government can shake the magic money tree when it wants to.
“The Bank of England can create money at the touch of a button and the government is under no impetus to repay at any speed,” he says.
“This makes the idea of scarcity of resources to come through the pandemic just an idea.
“People are frightened that money can just be created, but we now have a government whose instinct is free trade and non-intervention that has made a huge intervention in the economy.
“The pandemic has moved the line in the sand about how far do we go to allow this laissez faire ideology.”
It looks like money may grow on trees after all – just don’t tell the children.
- The Bank Job documentary feature film is released in spring 2021. Details: https://bankjob.pictures/film
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