Filmmaking partners Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce have had their share of successes before. They sold their first film, The Kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt, to HBO—the gold standard for indie documentarians. Their second film, Pip & Zastrow, won wide accolades (and film festivals). They even published a highly praised non-fiction book, Hostage Nation. They were on a roll.
But no one could have guessed the direction they would go in for their next documentary.
“Our executive producer is half French,” Bruce says, “and his relatives were sort of wealthy French people that had this attitude that only the little people pay taxes. So he’s really a very pro-tax-justice guy. He just believed that it was a good story.”
They found a whistleblower in Switzerland, but he ended up blowing his whistle to a different crew of documentarians. Eventually, though, the idea of uncovering individuals who shelter their money led to the topic of corporate tax abusers. “Every time we talked to one of the experts about the real rich guys hiding money offshore,” Bruce explains, “they’d say ‘Well, that’s really a problem. But the main problem, the bigger problem is what corporations do off shore.’ And we were completely ignorant. We’d be like ‘Which one?’ And they’d say ‘All of them! All of them! GE, Verizon, Apple, Google, Pfizer.’ So we decided that that was a much better hook. A better angle. We hope. Because that affects all of us, all of the time.”
Still, corporate tax cheats? Not exactly riveting stuff, right?
“Yeah, I would say that it was obvious to us too that the topic is super dry,” Bruce says with a laugh. “We were interviewing all these experts, and it was very interesting material, but we had no idea how to present it even as we were going from interview to interview. We just wanted to find a human factor. That was when we found US Uncut, which was a fledgling activist group. Literally, they hadn’t even done a national action yet. Karin found them and we headed down to Mississippi and started following this very charismatic drummer/journalist/nude modeler/gay-bar bouncer who had never done activism before. And we were really captivated by him and all these other characters that we met who were just waking up to this, to what we had just been learning. And we thought, what a great way to intersperse the human dynamic into what was going to be pretty dense material.”
Hayes and Bruce have a history of being responsive to the changing nature of the story they are telling. As they were planning their first documentary, for instance, about Colombia’s first woman presidential candidate, she was kidnapped and it became a very different film. We’re Not Broke might not have transformed quite that dramatically, but major adaptation was required. “As the film was changing,” Bruce says, “we had to be nimble in that way. We didn’t know how many shoot days it was going to take. When we had initially budgeted, we thought ‘Oh, we’re going to finish the film in six months,’ when we had this first idea of what the film was going to be. And that drastically changed, and we realized we needed way more shooting as we came across the Uncut stuff. And so we reached out, actually using Craigslist and US Uncut and some other social media sites. On Facebook, we reached out to some other people who were covering the US Uncut actions and we asked them if they would like to contribute any of their footage to the film, and so that really helped us a lot. One day when there were like 50 actions, and it was impossible for us to be in more than a couple places. People were so generous about sharing their footage.”
That’s a good thing, because as with every film, everywhere, money was an issue. “This is our first film that I would say we had a decent budget for,” says Hayes. “Originally we sat down and were like, ‘Wow! We have a budget. We can hire a shooter and sound,’ and that was the first day of shooting, and we never had a sound guy again. Your day will cost your two- to three-thousand dollars. Just to hire those people! And you’re not even paying yourself. So when we realized what a real movie takes, we went back to our old methods. We ended up just going back to our roots and doing what we know how to do, which is be scrappy and figure out how to make a movie with what you have. We have a really great shooter who did a lot of shooting, I have to say. Bryan Litt got all the gorgeous shots in our film.”
A few months later, Hayes got the call every indie filmmaker dreams of. “I was walking down the street with my editor, and I got this call from Los Angeles,” she remembers. “I answered it, and it was Sundance, and they told us we had had to send them a second DVD for the film. ‘There’s something wrong with your DVD,’ and we said ‘Oh my gosh, what?’ and they said, ‘We love it!’ So we were just basically screaming in the streets.”
Still, the two partners learned firsthand that getting into a big festival is often only the beginning of getting an independent film seen. “We had gone to the festival,” Hayes admits, “thinking ‘Oh! We’re going to sell our film to a large distributor and that’s going to be great! It’s going to be done and it’s totally going to be out of our hands.’ Well, that was not really the case. As it turns out, it’s been all pretty much self-distribution. We do have international distribution with Ro*co films. And we had a sales agent there. But in terms of making DVD’s and now going on the digital platforms…I mean, we’re working with the Sundance Institute of Artist Services Program for the digital stuff. But it’s been a lot more self-distribution than I ever expected.”
“I mean, we’re not the only activist filmmakers out there, obviously,” says Bruce.” So there’s been some really cool inroads on how to do this. We didn’t even decide until things started to implode in Washington that we needed to release our film for free. We put it out for the reason that people need to know that these financial negotiations are going on. No one is even mentioning the fact about corporate taxes—that we’re losing over a billion in revenue. And the corporations are circling Washington asking for more tax breaks. And we thought, our film can have the greatest impact right now.”
“Another thing that really helped us,” adds Hayes, “with a lot of the brainstorming sessions—sort of laying the ground work—was the residency we were in called the ‘Real Economy’ residency with the Fledgling Fund and Working Films. That was something we did in July. It was a great way to talk to other filmmakers and get an idea of how to do the social-media stuff. It really was kind of a boost for the film. What they really focus on is building partnerships with your film and these non-profit organizations. So, for us, we were there, and we were able to meet a bunch of non-profits that might be interested in our topic. Subsequently, we have been reaching out to them and doing screenings with some of them and hoping to push the film further that way. Because that seems like a way—especially filmmakers with a social issue, we’ve got this audience that’s already interested in your topic. It’s just connecting to it.”
Far too many social-action documentaries whip up viewers’ righteous indignation, then let them off the hook by not using that energy in a constructive way. But Hayes and Bruce have done an admirable job of providing a path to action for viewers moved by what they’ve seen. “After seeing the film,” Hayes explains, “they can go to our website and what we have right now is a ‘Take Action’ page, and we have a couple of actions up there. One of them is petition to encourage the repeal of the Citizens United decision. And then the other one is, here was a bill that was up there that we think is going to come back up—we’re going to update our ‘Take Action’ page when it does, that says that it will close corporate loopholes. But in the meantime, while that bill is being worked on, the idea is for people to contact their congresspeople, their senators, whatever, and basically voice their opinion. Tell them they saw the film, tell them that they want the idea of corporate tax loopholes to be closed. That they want multinational corporations to have to pay their fair share to contribute to our country. I think that our idea is that the more people that are vocal about this to their representatives, that’s how the pressure is going to have to start to build. If no one up in Washington hears from the citizens on this issue, then they don’t really have to do anything about it.”
We’re Not Broke is a film that gains a good bit of urgency and effect from seeing it on the big screen, and Montanans can see it next month at the Big Sky Documentary festival. The rest of us can see the film free starting today on Hulu. After you’ve been sufficiently motivated to take action, your one-stop shop to do so is at werenotbrokemovie.com/take-action/.