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Cleveland Versus Wall Street

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How do you make a documentary movie about a trial that never happened?

Run your own trial.

That’s the gamble made in Cleveland Versus Wall Street, a new movie about Cleveland’s lawsuit against Wall Street banks for their role in funding the subprime mortgage boom, which destroyed many Cleveland neighborhoods. The movie made its American premiere this week in Cleveland.

In real life, the city of Cleveland sued 21 Wall Street banks in January 2008, asserting that the institutions knowingly pushed the city into financial crisis by writing thousands of subprime mortgage loans to people who could never repay. The empty homes became havens for vandals and drug dealers, and cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars in lost taxes, maintenance and demolition costs.

“We’re going after them to get the resources we need to rebuild our city,” Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson told me when I wrote about the suit for The New York Times.

Federal judges from the Northern District of Ohio all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. But French film director Jean-Stéphane Bron already had spent months filming the city’s legal team, led by Josh Cohen, a private attorney in Cleveland.

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So Bron decided to film his own trial. He used real jurors, recruited from the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court jury pool. He used real lawyers, including Josh Cohen, the attorney handling the case for Cleveland, and Keith Fisher, a Washington D.C.-based attorney who has represented many of the nation’s largest banks. Bron recruited former county common pleas judge Thomas J. Pokorny to preside over the trial, and filmed the whole thing in a very officious-looking, oak-paneled courtroom.

Director Bron decided to focus on the psychological impact of the foreclosure crisis and the emotional interplay between the lawyers and jurors, rather than the facts of the case. That left both sides, and many audience members, feeling disappointed. Talking after the premiere, Fisher complained that none of his arguments about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s loans for low-income people contributing to the crisis appeared in the film.

Lawyers for Cleveland expressed displeasure that their emotional appeals were included, but not their arguments about how specific decisions by Wall Street banks to reap big fees from high-risk loans led directly to Cleveland’s blight.

“Where were all the specifics?” Bobbi Reichtell, a longtime community development specialist in Cleveland, said after the movie.

Others who attended the premiere were happy that the problem of blighted neighborhoods in a city like Cleveland was receiving any attention at all. Cleveland Versus Wall Street played at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It has been distributed in Europe, and a distributor called Neoclassics Films has agreed to promote the film to U.S. theaters.

Meanwhile, a different version of the lawsuit remains stuck in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. Cohen hopes to hear within the next six weeks whether that case will move forward.

“I was so proud to be part of Cleveland Versus Wall Street,” Barbara Anderson, a Cleveland resident who features prominently in the film, said before the movie to a sold-out crowd. “It’s only in Cleveland where you see this kind of resilience. I know that Cleveland knows how to fight back.”

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Image: Rev Stan, via Flickr

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