The collapse of Lehman Brothers in September, 2008 was one of the most cataclysmic events in modern finance. It was a mix of hubris and greed that culminated in trillions of dollars being put at risk. At the heart of the scandal was a legal if morally problematic connection between housing and financial instruments, where bad investments were wrapped up as good ones, all for the benefit of those at the very top. Real lives were destroyed and homes foreclosed upon, thanks to a fraudulent system that benefited from the destruction of lives and smashing of dreams of home ownership.
French investigative journalist Jennifer Deschamps spent years looking to speak to those directly affected by the story. Eschewing a broad overview of the tale, her film Inside Lehman Brothers focuses on individuals and how the scars of these days continue to haunt them. Through a series of highly personal stories, the film plays almost like a war remembrance, with shattered soldiers recounting their time in the trenches, recalling their own culpable roles in the greater tragedy that Lehman’s practices represent.
POV spoke to Jennifer by phone from Paris prior to the film’s screening at Hot Docs 2019.
POV: Jason Gorber
JD: Jennifer Deschamps
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
POV: What drew you to the Lehman story?
JD: 12 years ago I made a documentary about the sub-prime crisis in Stockton, California. I was looking for notices in the newspapers because I wanted to meet people who were to be foreclosed upon. One day I went to an address in a poorer area in the city. It was the end of the day, with the Californian autumn sun making it very cinematographic. There was a little African-American girl sitting outside. Her mother came out. She was my age, and I’m 40 now, but she was looking 20 years older. She asked me why I was there. I explained that I saw in the news that her house was to be foreclosed. She didn’t know. It was a real shock for her, but also for me. That was one year before the Lehman bankruptcy.
POV: So, this was 2007?
JD: Exactly. It was in October. Since then I tried to understand why I was the one to tell someone she was to lose her home. After I did the initial report, I wanted to explore in depth why all of this happened.
POV: There’s two ways that your film could have been told. One would be very straightforward and journalistic, but your way concentrates instead on the individual stories without much in the way of overview, showing us the people behind the headlines. Was that always the direction?
JD: I am an investigative journalist, so the first idea I had was about making a story about Lehman Brothers, which would be more like a traditional financial documentary. But when I met those people they were so strong so I decided to write another story. I used my voice as an investigative journalist, checking all of their facts. It took me months to check everything and to be sure that these people were saying the truth. I decided everything became stronger when instead of doing the interviews in their lawyer’s office we saw how they lived. It was a gift they gave the film and me. You can see in their lives, that they’re still living with what happened.
POV: You have a fascination with the little details in their homes, such as them pouring coffee.
JD: [Laughs]. Maybe because I’m French! With these women, their lives are only about work and making coffee at home. They still feel safe only at home. When you’re spending time with them, they’re in the kitchen or on the sofa.
POV: How did you find these women?
JD: I found them in the local newspaper.
POV: Did you do an advertisement?
JD: No, I just researched them. I made a call to their lawyers.
POV: How did you convince Lehman insider Matthew Lee to open up?
JD: At the beginning of the project I didn’t know what story I wanted to tell, so like any good journalist I contacted everybody. I looked at every name I could find from people who were working for Lehman in Wall Street. I read thousands of articles and essays, working on that for three months. Most of the people never answered. Some sent their lawyers, saying we are not going to speak to you, and please never be in contact any more. Some asked us to give them money to speak; I refused as that is not the way we work in France. Some asked for thousands of dollars just to speak on the phone.
I was in contact with a lawyer that said Matthew is not interested, but he forwarded an email I sent to him. Matthew and I exchanged emails for months. After a year and a half we met for the first time and he finally agreed. Why did he say yes to me when he said no to everyone except 60 Minutes for a five-minute interview in 2010? First, I was French. He’s both European and American, and he believes in European journalists more. Second, I’m part of a board of an association of investigative journalists who defend whistleblowers.
POV: Most documentarians don’t have the luxury of being able to spend two years chasing down a story.
JD: If you want to do a documentary like this, you don’t have the choice.
POV: Well, of course you have the choice. You can just make a lesser film.
JD: Yeah, exactly [laughs]. But I didn’t want to make a bad one.
POV: These individuals all seem to want to leave the life they lived behind.
JD: After this nightmare they all came back to the roots of nature. That’s something I wanted to show. When I met them, many had left the city and were now were living in nature. Matthew, after living his life in the city, on Wall Street, now spends time alone on his motorbike exploring landscapes.
POV: How did you end up feeling after hearing their stories? Did you have more or less hope about the future?
JD: When you look at the story of the Lehman Brothers, it’s quite pessimistic. The antidote, like everything, has to come from the government. It’s not going to come from the bankers.
POV: So you still have faith in regulation?
JD: Regulation and controls, with real guidelines around the regulations. Even when there is regulation, there is always lobbying and corruption.
POV: Do the participants feel better about their role in the project?
JD: They loved it, and they were really thankful. It was a way to rehabilitate them because now their story has been told. Nobody can say we don’t know.
POV: Was there ever a time when the story was just too hard to tell and you thought of giving up?
JD: No, never. I think it’s a gift to have the honour to tell this universal story. Never give up!
Inside Lehman Brothers screens:
-Sat, Apr. 27 at 9:30 p.m. at TIFF Lightbox
-Sun, Apr. 28 at 1:30 p.m. Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
-Fri, May 3 at6:15 p.m. at TIFF Lightbox