A dark, noisy nightclub may seem like an unlikely venue to find former Secretary of Labor, present UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy Robert Reich, but this is the Sundance Film Festival where actual interview suites are in short supply. Music bleeding in from upstairs and a deep bass line shaking the walls lend a surreal atmosphere as Reich and filmmaker Jacob Kornbluth talk about their documentary Inequality for All, in which the diminutive, amiable Reich diagnoses what ails the American economy and offers his prescription to fix it. The doc, which recently opened in theaters, took home a Special Jury Prize from the festival, the Sundance jurors declaring, “With clarity, humor and heart, this timely film reveals the underpinnings of an urgent threat to American democracy.” That heart is on ample display as director and subject talk about their collaboration and what they hope it accomplishes.
Q: You two started working together on short videos. How did that come about and how did that lead to the feature?
JK: What happened was I met a girl and that moved me from L.A. back to the Bay Area and I started making a film with [my brother] Josh called Love and Taxes and we cast Bob as a former IRS commissioner.
RR: It’s a comedy and I’m a ham! Of course, I just thought it would take about 10 minutes. I didn’t know anything about film, obviously. I didn’t do a very good job, but we met then and subsequently we started making these two-minute videos. Hundreds of thousands of people watched them and I’m enormously impressed with Jake.
JK: We got along. It was an honor to work with him, and honestly, since we started working together, it’s gotten better and better. He’s a fantastic intellect, but also a great guy. It just sort of seemed like a natural extension of us working together to make a film.
He was writing a book and the book was called Aftershock. Reading that book changed the way I thought about – it changed some of my narrative. It seemed like maybe this is a story that can affect a lot of people. I felt like a movie would make sense, because I knew that he was so good on camera and he had this ability to break down these complex issues in ways that everybody could understand.
Q: What surprised me about the film was how much humor there is in it and how humorous you are, especially since there must be times in trying to get your points across about the economy that you feel like you’re pounding your head against a brick wall.
RR: Comedy is necessary. Humor is necessary. It’s necessary for two reasons in my life: One, because if I took myself too seriously, I really would go completely crazy. I’ve been talking about and worrying about and writing about and screaming about this issue for 30 years. But also because humor is universal. The reason (former Republican Wyoming senator) Alan Simpson and I, for example, became good friends, the way I get conservative audiences to listen to me is through humor. If we can laugh together, we can actually open our minds to what each other says.
JK: And as you may know, my background is in comedy. This is my first documentary. I didn’t come at this from the sense of a serious documentarian, although I think it is a very serious film. I really connected to that area of humor that Bob has very deeply in his personality and his public life.
Q: Your amiability is certainly disarming. What you’re talking about is alarming, but there is none of the rage you’d find in something like a Michael Moore documentary.
RR: This can’t be polemic, it can’t be. Even though it uses my big lecture at Berkeley as one of its anchors, even there there’s humor. Candidly, I’ve always joked about my height. It wasn’t until we were doing this movie that I saw a relationship between my personal history, in terms of my being very short, and what I’ve been doing for the last 30 years. It may seem odd, but I hadn’t really put my own personal pieces together.
Q: You have people in the film who personalize income inequality and its surrounding issues through their life experiences. How did you go about getting those people?
JK: After thinking about that and realizing that we wanted that, what we did was we looked at people that Bob came in contact with.
RR: And several of them are people from my class. Jake was smart enough and insightful enough to know that there is some emotional reality there. These young people are struggling with their families, with balancing a checkbook, and they are also sitting in a class where the subject is the very context of what they’re struggling with.
JK: It felt nice that the people have some interaction with Bob. It made it so that it felt like the whole story was interconnected and tied together. Past that, we were looking for people who surprise you in some way. There’s certainly a story about the struggling middle class, which I feel is a very important one to tell, but also one that is hard to make feel fresh and new in a movie. We wanted people that, frankly, I could relate to, who didn’t feel like they were about to be on street. You felt like they should be making it, but weren’t.
Q: We live in an age in which so many people don’t seem to communicate, they simply shout at each other. Do you hope this film will open up some kind of dialogue?
RR: That’s our hope. We want to change the conversation. Instead of this incessant vitriol and partisanship, I have a deep faith that when people understand what the system looks like, how we got to where we are and stop playing the blame game, that it’s possible for us to have a different kind of conversation.
For years now, I come across people and I ask about what they do and how they’re feeling about their job and sometimes about how much they’re earning and health insurance and everything else, and the fact of the matter is, the typical person in this country is working harder and harder and getting less and less and has less and less job security and is having a harder time paying the bills and having a family than at any time since the Second World War. This is ridiculous, given that this is the richest country in the world and we’re richer than we’ve ever been.
Many people say, “That’s just the way it has to be. That is the way the economy is organized.” What I say in this film and Jake so eloquently conveys is that we don’t work for the economy. The economy ought to be working for us. We make the rules by which the economy functions. There is no economy in the state of nature. These are political decisions and the problem is most people don’t understand that we make the rules. – Pam Grady