Capitalizing on the debt issue: Filmmakers Serge Bakalian and Aurora Meneghello visit with Greg Cendana (center, President of the United States Student Association) in Washington, D.C., while investigating what went wrong with student loans.

Living on Default line in Bakalian Doc

Michael Fox April 6, 2010

Last week, President Obama signed a bill reforming the Federal student loan program by, among other things, eliminating the gluttonous fees private banks received for making government-guaranteed loans. Cutting out the middleman–a cherished American goal from the Lower East Side to late-night Ronco commercials–will save billions and help millions. One thing it won’t do, says Serge Bakalian, is make superfluous his forthcoming documentary exposing the usurious burden of student loans. “The bill only addresses a small fraction of the problem,” he explains. “It’s sort of a Band-Aid that doesn’t go the core of the problem. It doesn’t address private loans, which is a major, major problem out there.”

Default, which Bakalian shot in the Bay Area, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., examines the relatively recent phenomenon of college loans morphing into a dream-crushing mountain of debt. Part of the problem is that tuition is much higher than it was just a few generations ago, but the banks deserve a ton of, uh, credit for their skillful application of predatory practices. Jacking rates is just one of the legal ways they milk their twenty-something customers.

“We always wanted to tell the story from the point of view of the borrowers,” the novice filmmaker explains. “Even though we do have talking heads–experts and journalists–we wanted the story to be driven by borrowers. We wanted to show the human consequences of this problem, the emotional struggle that people are going through.” (To view the trailer, go to

This is a familiar strategy in American documentary, of course, but achieving an emotional connection with the viewer is vital when the subject involves money, loan agreements and legal mumbo-jumbo. In fact, your eyes may be glazing as we speak, and we’re only in the fourth paragraph.

“At the end of the day, this whole [loan] process is so complicated,” Bakalian confirms. “A Harvard professor has been helping us with the project, and even she’s unclear about aspects of the [new] law. So how do 18-year-olds know, when they’re signing promissory notes?”

According to the filmmaker, the weight of college-loan debt is both an underreported and underappreciated phenomenon. The film’s target audience, he says, includes “people who don’t think student loans are a problem. ‘I paid my student loans back. It was really easy. Why are kids having a problem?’ The world of student loans has changed drastically in the last 10 years.”

Meanwhile, the President’s signature on a piece of paper won’t make existing nightmares magically disappear. "The one thing that’s not being reported about this reform is it doesn’t address the issue of people who currently have loans” Bakalian explains. ”More disturbing, even though the private companies won’t be funding the loans, the government just gave these companies the servicing contracts for these loans.”

Bakalian grew up in Lebanon and L.A., and originally planned to become a doctor. He quit medical school to spend eight years working for Greenpeace as a science advisor on its GMO (genetic engineering) campaign. In 2008, he relocated to San Francisco and became managing director of Golden Threads Productions, a theater company.

“In my time with public policy and organizing, I felt I was preaching to the choir constantly,” Bakalian explains. “Even though I didn’t have a background in the arts, that’s where I felt I could effect the most change–or at least reach the widest audience.”

At the same time, Bakalian embarked on Default, swapping Monsanto for Sallie Mae as the object of his derision. The writer-producer, with writer-director Aurora Meneghello, just finished a 26-minute broadcast version that they’re starting to submit to film festivals as well as KQED. A local screening is in the works for early June in conjunction with the San Francisco stop of Anya Kamenetz, author of Generation Debt, who’s out promoting her new book, DIY U.

The filmmakers envision a feature-length version, but fundraising has been a challenge.

“I’ve been really successful raising money for my theater company, but not for the film,” Bakalian reports. Some foundations have rejected him because he’s a first-time filmmaker and “this project is too big for you.” Bakalian understands, up to a point. “I don’t have a reel,” he notes. “I haven’t worked on student projects.”

Regardless of his experience level, he maintains there’s a substantial audience for Default. “I do think there’s potential with this one, because it’s a topic so many people do want to see,” Bakalian says. “I’m sure there’s a mechanism for me to capitalize on it, but when I did the mission statement, that wasn’t in the top five. So in terms of revenue, I’m thinking more about my second or third film. I don’t want people not to see Default because they’ll have to buy a $20 DVD. I didn’t start in film, or on this project, because I wanted to make a lot of money.”

Notes From the Underground
Connie Field’s seven-part magnum opus, Have You Heard From Johannesburg opens April 14 at Film Forum in New York. The Bratt Brothers’ La Mission opens on Bay Area screens April 16, nearly a year after its West Coast debut as the opening night film of the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival. More SFIFF alumni, Logan and Noah Miller, bring Touching Home into wide release April 30. The April 29 gala at the Rafael Film Center, with Ed Harris, is sold out. Tom Shepard’s Whiz Kids opens June 4 in New York and June 11 in L.A.

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