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The Human Face of Student Debt: A Conversation With the Filmmakers of 'Default'

A documentary on the student loan crisis lends a much needed perspective on the cost of educational debt.

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Serge Bakalian: I was really shocked by how little information there was about the issue. And no one really was speaking out. We met with Alan Collinge, who started StudentLoanJustice.org, and he was the first person to wave the flag and say there’s a problem here. But no attention at the time was being paid to this in the media. So what we envisioned for the film was just to bring the attention of the public. That’s why it works really well that it’s 30 minutes -- it’s an awareness piece to let people know there’s a problem out there and we need to do something about it.  

EW: In the movie, there’s some shocking information about how much people owe, and about forbearance (being charged to suspend payment on a loan as the interest rates continue to mount). What was most surprising thing you learned in the process of making the film? 

AM: What we noticed in the research, pretty much [everyone] at the time, except Student Loan Justice, was [saying], “Take out student loans -- they’re good for you.” There was very little information on what happens if you cannot make these payments. The more we researched we saw people were having problems paying the interest on what they had borrowed, so we wanted to explain that people weren’t able to pay back their loans not because they weren’t able to pay back what they borrowed, but because they’re trying to pay multiples of what they borrowed. Essentially if you make a mistake and go into default, for whatever reason – maybe you didn’t stay on top of it, something happened in your life, whatever reason – it’s very hard to dig yourself out of that situation. There is no safety net for people who can’t pay.

SB: One of the surprising things was the effect this has on individuals in this country. It makes people not act. It makes people not go into the professions they want to go into. We saw people not starting businesses and [not] having families because they’re worried about the debt – so it was a much larger issue than the amount of money they borrowed for college. The ripple effect was very eye-opening. 

EW: When you show the movie, what do audiences react to most?

AM: There’s a part in the movie where one of the borrowers we interviewed says he’s not sure he can ever have kids or marry the person he’s in love with because of his debt, and I think that resonates with people a lot. So the human consequences – the amount of debt that never goes away, that destroys people’s credit and makes it impossible sometimes to have a family – that resonates a lot with people. This idea that basic human rights are taken away from you because you cannot pay back money you borrowed. 

SB: A lot of times, our audiences, they do get angry because they didn’t know this crisis is happening. But what I like to see is that, particularly after the panel discussions, they really get engaged. They come up to us and ask, “What can we do?” That’s such an important step to take. One of the things we really wanted to do with the film besides presenting a human face to the issue, was we didn’t want people to watch this film and get depressed. We wanted them to leave the theater engaged and wanting to act, in whatever capacity. 

EW: Why do you think the student loan industry has so much power? 

 
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