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Wall Street traders hit the ropes

Wall Street traders from Jean-Stéphane Bron's film square up to the camera

Bonecrusher and Monkey Fist slug it out in the ring. Back at their desks they resume battle in the money markets while all around their world slowly goes up in smoke.

This content was published on April 29, 2009 - 16:13

In his latest documentary, Traders, Swiss director Jean-Stéphane Bron captures bankers taking part in the 2008 Wall Street Boxing Charity Championship at the height of the financial crisis.

Traders was shown on Monday at the Visions du Réel documentary film festival in Nyon, which runs until Thursday.

Six years after his smash-hit documentary, Mais im Bundeshaus, about a group of parliamentarians working on a genetics law and supposedly showing democracy in action, Bron returns with a hard-hitting film on "capitalism in action".

His subtle portraits of Wall Street's humble foot soldiers, battling in and out of the ring and trying to come to terms with the financial meltdown, attempt to give the financial industry a human face.

"I wanted to give a face and body to an abstract idea and remind people that the markets are political," Bron told swissinfo. "We hear about 'markets running wild' but we forget that there are people behind the markets taking decisions, and there is an ideology and politics."

The idea for the story came to Bron while he was doing research, interviewing "hundreds of people – bankers, traders and hedge fund managers".

"They were very nice, but the door stayed shut," he explained.

Metaphor

By chance Bron heard about the annual charity boxing tournament in New York and jumped at the occasion, considering it an excellent metaphor for the industry.

"This was an opportunity to open the door on this world. People are not used to talking or are not allowed to talk. It's a world that is run by secrecy," he said.

But by September 2008 the financial world was imploding. Billions of dollars had gone up in smoke, jobs were being lost, the banking giant Lehmann Brothers had just gone bust a few days before filming and the US Congress was hesitating over a $700-billion bailout.

"Suddenly their whole world had been shaken up. That's why they were ready to open their hearts and minds," he said.

Pumped up

The film is divided into five rounds – or 50 minutes – in which six traders, foreign exchange brokers and moneymakers (three men and three women) talk candidly to Bron with their gloves on and off.

The boxers are pumped up ahead of the tournament.

"I want to win this match so that my company can be proud of me," said André "The Greek Sheik" Ameer.

But this is part of the game, explained Bron.

"The trader is at the bottom of the industry. You have to show you are confident and not show pain or doubts. You have to be tough, as every day is another war – every day you have to make profit," he said.

"It's a cutthroat industry and group of people, really brutal," confirmed "Big Daddy".

Traders have to take risks to earn big profits, explained The Greek Sheik.

"They want to see ten per cent returns a year, but that doesn't happen unless you take a big risk," he said.

And this is probably why a number of banking institutions were knocked out, as Austin "Monkey Fist" Philbin put it graphically.

"People were doing so well with their trades and maybe got too aggressive, so leaving themselves open to a Hail Mary haymaker counterpunch that knocked them out when the tide quickly turned," he said.

"Not invincible"

The stars of Bron's film are not Masters of the Universe earning million-dollar bonuses. Most of them are married, middle-class workers from the suburbs whose friends and family members have been badly hit by the sub-prime crisis and burst of the housing bubble.

Stunned by the collapse of Lehmann Brothers – "a real monster" – their fears and uncertainties emerge.

"We're not invincible," says Patrick "Who's your Daddy" Mitchell.

"I keep going to bed and waking up and the nightmare is still there," said "Big Daddy".

"It's an emotional rollercoaster," said Kelly "Machine Gun" Vergamini. "It's up and down all day long. You laugh and cry."

Bron cuts up the raw interviews and boxing scenes with images of boarded-up houses and recorded TV footage of Richard Fuld, head of Lehmann Brothers, and Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, being grilled by the US Congress.

"The traders are part of this industry. But they are the soldiers and not the generals, strategists or politicians. I don't blame them. They are responsible as they wanted to belong to this industry but not directly," said Bron.

Blind optimism

Their job is to make a profit – day in day out – and not to devise long-term financial strategies. When the Swiss director asks the traders to explain how the financial world works, most of them are unable to reply and take wild swings.

Perhaps most damning, however, is their blind optimism in the future that ends the film.

"The party is just getting started," declared Ben "Bonecrusher" Sadgrove, who sees bull opportunities following the recent collapse.

Despite the financial tsunami, the industry has not really learned a lesson, said Bron.

"Of course they have lost lots of jobs and the situation is very sad, but there has been no real pain or suffering. No one is in jail and no one has really paid the price for the bad decisions," he said.

swissinfo, Simon Bradley

Key facts

Jean-Stéphane Bron
Born in Lausanne in 1969.
1988-89: studied at Ipotesi cinema school, Italy.
1989-94: studied directing at DAVI (Département d'Audiovisuel de l'École Cantonal d'Art de Lausanne, Bussigny). 1995 Receives degree from ECAL.
Filmography: 12, chemin des Bruyères (1995); Ted Robert, le rêve américain (co-director) (1996) / Connu de nos services (1997); La bonne conduite (1999); En cavale (2001); Mais im Bundeshuus – Le génie helvétique (2003); Mon frère se marie (2006); Traders (2009)

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Visions du Réel

Visions du Réel is the most important film festival in French-speaking Switzerland, and one of three major film festivals in Switzerland along with Solothurn and Locarno.

The festival began in 1969 and became know for showing films that reflected struggles for independence, or the emancipation of women for example.

It was given a makeover in 1995 with a new strategy that included fictional and experimental films and was renamed Visions du Réel.

It is a focal point for European producers and distributors.

The 15th Visions du Réel festival runs from April 23-29.

There are 150 films from 16 countries, including 20 films in the international categories.

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