When producer Sarah Gibson approached Alex Gibney‘s Jigsaw Productions with the story that would inspire The China Hustle, Jed Rothstein — who was directing several projects for the prodco at the time — was stunned.
Gibson’s story was one of financial greed and fraud, operating on a transnational scale. It also showed the lack of enforceable regulatory structures that would have curbed such abuses.
The story was big, says Rothstein. And what’s more, it originated in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse — a sensational event that also revealed insider abuses of a poorly regulated financial system. For Rothstein, the fact that the two cases could stand chronologically side by side, with few people knowing about the second, spoke to the system’s corruption.
Gibson and Gibney have both worked on documentaries about the U.S. economy.
In 2008, Gibson produced Patrick Creadon’s I.O.U.S.A, a doc on the U.S. national debt. Gibney’s 2005 Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room looked at the collapse of the Enron Corporation.
The China Hustle looks at Wall Street operators who conspired with businesspeople in China to poach billions of dollars from average American investors.
For the documentary, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 8th, Rothstein worked with Jigsaw, the Kennedy/Marshall Company, 2929 Productions and S.J. Gibson Films to locate Wall Street insiders, Chinese investigators, financial activists and victims of the heist to unfurl a complex financial landscape for a mass audience.
Translating the resulting story to film was not an easy task, says Rothstein.
“What’s the action of a financial story?” he asks. “It’s people trading. It’s people talking on the phone and looking at computers.” As the production crew dug deeper, they uncovered threads that enriched the doc’s narrative while also lending themselves to cinematic shots.
One of these threads involved conferences where stocks were sold. “It was literally like, let’s invite a bunch of these Chinese executives from these companies, a bunch of our salespeople and a bunch of professionals who buy this stuff on behalf of their clients’ retirement funds, and bring them to a fancy hotel, and serve a lot of booze, and have a couple of rock bands play, and a bunch of girls in go-go dancing cages and a couple of political celebrities who give anodyne speeches,” Rothstein laughs. “That was pretty cinematic.”
Another challenge was getting the story straight. Although most of the characters in the doc were willing to share their experiences, many of the individuals who held the most incriminating evidence – bankers, CEOs of Chinese companies that participated in the heist – declined to talk.
Given that the heist was enabled, in part, by the opacity of the financial system into which investors were putting their money, access to industry players who could unravel its complexity was key. These players did participate in the film, occasionally at the expense of their own safety.
“The only person who wanted to be anonymous [in the film] was a man who works for the Chinese banking regulators,” says Rothstein. “We filmed him a little bit. The reason of the fact that he still works there, and is Chinese, and lives in [China] – [that's why he] wanted to be anonymous.”
For Rothstein, that so many people were willing to talk is telling: it affirms that the story is an important one to tell.
“The American economy is increasingly integrated into the global economy, and it’s increasingly interconnected with the Chinese economy in particular. And the lack of transparency, the lack of regulation allows a type of stealing and robbery to happen.”
“I think that this is an underreported story, and it’s something we should all pay more attention to,” Rothstein continues. “Right now, as people are not paying attention to this, the Trump administration is taking steps to unwind regulations that were put in place after 2008 – many of them to prevent something like [the China hustle]… Hopefully this story can wake people up to this problem and spur action and spur pressure on our elected officials to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again.”