When I saw the recent Academy Award-winning film “The Big Short,” I was struck by the sheer genius of the financiers who devised the schemes and packaged the loans for resale, but it left me with unanswered questions about how the properties these loans represented were moved.
“The Big Short” was largely about paper transactions, big money, and wealthy investors, and it mildly touched on the way the actual end-users — the home buyers and brokers — played into this scheme.
For every packaged loan transaction, credit default swap, and synthetic collateralized debt obligation handled by the men in suits, there are actual people and properties being bet on. The film inescapably raised questions. How were these properties moved? Who was on the ground in these risky neighborhoods? And just how were these transactions put together?
Three Brooklyn-based Israeli real estate brokers, developers, and property managers were working deep in the heart of the real estate boom before the big bust of 2008. They were buying dilapidated properties, renovating them, and then reselling them — usually to people who could obtain loans only through the controversial government-backed programs that encouraged property ownership even for those who could not afford it.
What they saw were greedy mortgage brokers, shady developers, and most likely inept or corrupt appraisers, and they also saw firsthand the deal-making on the ground that got these properties sold — sales that would then yield a risky mortgage to be packaged by the bankers on display in “The Big Short.” It inspired them to write a screenplay and develop a story to share with the world.
That was the 2015 movie “The Closer.”
It was only by chance, in 2010, while he was working in real estate to finance his passion for film, that former Israel Defense Forces photographer Eli Hershko met developer Isaac Broyn and his partner Victor Baranes, a former master engineer in a fighter jet squadron in the Israeli Air Force. They were all involved in the same markets in lower-income Brooklyn, so they shared their stories of challenges stemming from the then-recent market collapse. As they talked, they realized that they shared in interest in telling this story to the world. So they embarked on the ambitious project of developing a compelling story based on some very real experiences they saw, heard about first hand, or learned about through industry peers.
Now, “The Closer” evolved and is on the film festival circuit, launching in Buffalo, N.Y., and Palm Beach, Fla., then coming to Hawaii and New York City, to name a few host cities. It is a self-financed film, shot over the course of 28 days, pulling favors all over Brooklyn, from the local police and property managers to the bars and shops used as sets.
The movie stars Robert Berlin as the military unit commander, a ruthless broker who cares only about making money to fund his lavish lifestyle. Christopher Kloko is his right-hand man, and Patrick Duke Conboy is the initially unwitting loner who is trying to escape the nightmares of war when their buddy was killed by a sniper.
The film itself is a drama, with action, heated anger, a love story, and a tale of a friendship that begins in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, in a U.S. military unit, and extends to the tough streets of Brooklyn. It quickly establishes the characters and their associations, their friendships and post-war personalities, before getting into the fast-paced and sometimes shady underworld of the low-income real estate market.
“The Closer” explores the methods used to get loans approved for high-risk borrowers, and the way emotions are played on to convince the prey that home ownership is good for them. It covers the violent turf and gang wars over neglected buildings in poor neighborhoods, the removal of squatters, and the corruption in the appraisal process. Basically, it shows the bottom rungs of the banking scandals that brought the market down. For every unprincipled finance vehicle created by the bankers, “The Closer” shows the voracious property and mortgage brokers sowing the seeds of catastrophe so that they can buy Rolex watches and Mercedes-Benz cars.
The film also includes a love story, which looks at the ways in which money and greed affect families and loved ones. It also presents a test of the loyalties between a commander and his troops. There are Russian mobsters, street thugs, exotic dancers, car crashes, and shootouts, and it all comes together in a compelling action film surrounding the local Brooklyn streets, the atmosphere built by greed, and the corruption that rose from the ground up to the towers of Wall Street.
Eli Hershko, Isaac Broyn, and Victor Baranes just elevated themselves from unknown real estate entrepreneurs to the competitive world of Hollywood and the indie film market. They have built a solid little picture that will compel moviegoers and give us all some appreciation for how a major international economic scandal was born on small streets in our own neighborhoods, all around us.