Making Four Horsemen

In an era of media outlet conglomeration and misinformation, Ross Ashcroft knew that his role as an investigative documentary maker was more important than ever. Finding the truth and making it stand out is difficult, financial constraints and legal challenges can curb the energy behind exploratory work. Ross and his crew faced numerous obstacles and had many decisions to make in the course of completing their triumphant documentary of society and economics Four Horsemen. They had to take on the society and economic situation in which they were making their film, their work was cut out. The first step was checking out the competition.

With some trepidation Ashcroft and his team went to view Charles Ferguson’s highly successful documentary on the 2008 financial meltdown Inside Job during the making of their own feature. The team emerged from the cinema with relief. Documenting the problems that caused the meltdown was not their primary focus Ashcroft’s team sought to analyse the economic rules and devise a method of changing those rules.

Although Ashcroft agrees with Ferguson in regards to the causes of the financial crisis, his mission was not to demonise. “Eighty percent of bankers are good people, the other twenty are not the type of people you would like to be involved with” states Ashcroft. “Bankers flatter themselves to think they have caused all this, it’s not quite accurate. They certainly drove the crash and exacerbated it but the crash occurred because we have not updated the ‘software’ or the ‘operating system’ we run the planet on.”

With such things to say about a system from which he needed money to fund his film, it was never going to be easy for Ashcroft to find capital. “We met some wonderfully generous people along the way. They saw what we were trying to achieve and helped out” says Ashcroft. Though he laments the conflict of interests in the mainstream media, there is cause for optimism in new models of self-funding that are becoming available to filmmakers. “It’s actually very exciting; the benefit of [self-funding] is that we retained total editorial control. I can’t think of another way to work now.” Ashcroft’s documentary exposes the myth that the people who seem to be in power are not actually in control. They decided to make that part of the message and find another way around the funding situation, it was logical they way they made the film was in synergy with the principles discussed in it. It is all very Zen.

The next barrier was distribution, a common problem for small independent films like Four Horsemen. The independent film festival circuit was the best way for Ashcroft to get his film seen and he reaped the rewards. “[The] film has sold out at every festival it’s been at so commercially it works” notes the director. Ashcroft is thankful for a shift of distribution methods that means those he deems ‘the gatekeepers’, essentially the large distribution companies, have much less power and filmmakers can now get their films straight to market. “What we have is a visionary distributor who is moving with the times. These people are rare.”

Despite the festival success, films about economic despair that are full of information are not often box offices successes. There is always the chance that frustration sets in when the realising that not enough people will get the chance to digest a message that could be seen as vitally important. “It’s essential [viewing] if you want to protect yourself from a rapacious system that has veered beyond the control of democratic governments” states Ashcroft. “All of Four Horsemen’s Q&A’s go on for much longer than scheduled so we must be hitting a nerve. Unfortunately we are vying with big sporting events, games consoles and cheap lager; we accept that apathy is a feature of modern society.” Yet Ashcroft remains positive. “Those who want to be informed find the film. We are quite philosophical about this and leave it to the audiences to get the word out. We have not spent a penny on advertising and the film has gone round the world; compare that statistic to the average blockbuster!”

High audience attendance may never have been realistic but Ashcroft is always positive about the difference making a film like Four Horsemen can have on those who see it. “It will make a difference” exclaims Ashcroft “but I’m not sure how to quantify it. We have had mail thanking us for illuminating an alternative way of organising society, who knows what happens from stimulating that kind of thinking. It is important not to waste this crisis.”

There are always others paying attention to the development and reception of films such as Four Horsemen. The companies and persons lambasted in the film keep an eye on what is going on and are not inclined to make things easy for the filmmakers. “Their legal departments take a keen interest” recalls Ashcroft, “but the filmmaker has an advantage called ‘defence in truth’. You see in the film that Goldman Sachs staff in New York ordered the NYPD to arrest us for filming their building. We explained to the police what actually happens in that building (i.e. gambling police pensions) and they were so shocked they let us go. It’s the classic David versus Goliath conflict, and everyone knows how that one ended up.”

In the face of legal action and police threats the Four Horsemen team endeavoured to complete the film free of all restrictions. “We were fearless and would tackle anything if it served our story” says Ashcroft. The team committed to taking the risks rather than risk producing something incomplete or compromised, “shying away from the risks conversely means you risk everything”, something they were unwilling to do. The truth is part of why everyone involved in the film do what they do; it comes as part of the job.

Four Horsemen is a calm measured approach to truth-telling. A sublime balance of composure and tenacity that is undeniably exact. There is no argument against the facts they present and their cures for an ailing society are reasonable at worst. Most documentaries have an agenda of sorts and Four Horsemen is no different but they do not attempt to force anything down the viewer’s throat. Ashcroft has a simple rule: “State the truth calmly and it resonates with everyone.” It seems simple, but it is this ethos that helps the film to stand out. “Our first cut was visceral, angry and an assault on the audience” recalls Ashcroft. “This was the wrong way to go so we resorted to just presenting the facts, which, incidentally, are shocking enough.”

Ashcroft and his team present these facts, often complicated economic systems, in an easily digestible fashion. He would also disagree with the statement ‘complicated economics’ as he firmly believes that it is all a facade and doesn’t miss a beat to expose the corruption he observes rooted in the system. “If an economist says to you “it’s really not that simple”, it probably is. That’s when you question their motives. Economics is just housekeeping, the problem is that we have taught junk, co-opted economics in Ivy League universities for about a hundred years. Today we live with the consequences of that teaching which is why those in power are clueless as to how to refloat the economy.”

Despite his strong opinions, Ashcroft knew it was important that Four Horsemen was as balanced as possible and his technique of searching for the truth aided this process. “You tend to find a natural balance not an engineered balance. Synthetic balance has eroded polemic and weakened films that could have had a dramatic social impact.” Ashcroft was not in it for “copy and paste journalism”, he had a view but kept it caged so he could loyally serve the words of his contributors.

The list of contributors, such as Noam Chomsky and Joseph Stiglitz he put together is one of the most staggering aspects of Four Horsemen. Once he got past the levels of protection that these stars of the economic world enjoy, Ashcroft found them more than willing to help. “Every one of the interviewees was generous and wholly supportive. I think they were happy to do a long form piece as opposed to the usual thirty second media sound bite.” Former Wall Street trader Tarek El Diwany, hedge-fund analyst David Morgan and former State Department Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson add equilibrium to the argument. They are just a few examples of the contributors who may seem political at odds with the documentary’s aim but are integral to Ashcroft’s approach to the film.

A balanced and calm approach as well as expert contributors means that Four Horsemen is in a league of its own, there is no need for hard-hitting rhetoric with that kind of approach. “We remembered that T. S. Eliot said “Humankind cannot stand very much reality”. Today we live in the crossfire of so much sensation that we actually felt we did not need to add to it. We are not doom-mongers; the Four Horsemen message is one of hope.” Indeed it is, Ashcroft and his team have faced many challenges to bring the information to our doorstep, and it is now up to us to do something about it.


Four Horsemen is now available on DVD. An accompanying book, ‘The Survival Manual’ exploring the issues covered in the film further is also available.

About The Author

Jonathan went back to university to study Film Journalism in Glasgow in 2012 and hasn't looked back since. Writing for the Edinburgh Internation Film Festival, The Birmingham Review, The Electrolyte Magazine as well as Front Row Reviews he enjoys working across media and if not lambasting folk about politics it's film on his agenda. Working in The Electric Cinema in Birmingham has allowed him to come closer to the medium he loves, his favourite filmmaker is Wong Kar-Wai.

One Response

  1. Johanna

    I have seen this film and it was truly educational and thought provoking. I admit seeing it twice, because I was so fascinated by it! It really explains how the financial systems work so that even a non-informed lay person like me understands it. The film gave me many answers, amongst others what happened when countries left the gold standard. I never understood before and could not have guessed! i leave it though to the film to explain. This is a film everyone should see. I have been singing its praises to anyone who cares to listen.


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