Futures Past: IDFA Review

Lively documentary compellingly combines family-strife autobiography with an elegy to a fast-changing corner of the financial world.

Jordan Melamed's documentary examines the director's stormy relationship with his father, against their shared backdrop of financial futures trading.

More than a decade after mental-health indie Manic established him as a name to watch, writer-director Jordan Melamed delivers a belated but welcome sophomore effort with documentary Futures Past. What starts off as a heartfelt tribute to a Chicago stock-exchange in the throes of traumatic "modernization" gradually becomes a fascinating portrait of Melamed's ever-tempestuous relationship with his father Leo, kingpin of said exchange. Non-fiction festivals should certainly check out this unexpected highlight of Amsterdam's IDFA documentary jamboree, with small-screen play further down the line a given.

Melamed hasn't been idle since 2001's Manic, which provided the currently red-hot Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel with very early big-screen leading roles. He adapted Nick McDonell's cult bestseller Twelve into what became a little-seen Joel Schumacher picture two years ago, but Futures Past may yet re-energize the 41-year-old's career. He certainly has rather more real-world experience than most filmmakers of his age, having spent a lucrative decade and a half as a trader at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) before abandoning the "family firm" for a crack at Hollywood.

This decision didn't play well with his pop Leo, a Polish-born refugee from Nazi Europe whose ultra-successful career in the United States led to him being known as "the father of financial futures." The film provides a functional introduction to the complex futures market for those uninitiated in its arcane practices, which involve a series of high-stakes trades and gambles on the future value of commodities. At the CME this was for decades achieved by the system known as Open Outcry, a hectic and colorful procedure involving hundreds of traders yelling and waving their arms on a vast trading-floor known as the "pits", immortalized in a large-scale 1997 photograph by Andreas Gursky.

As the film begins this method is being phased out in favor of a much quieter, more sedate electronic alternative known as Globex, championed by the CME's septuagenarian chairman emeritus, Leo Melamed. Leo doesn't hide his long-burning disgruntlement at Jordan's mid-life volte-face: "my career didn't take off," admits Melamed junior, who, short of cash, returns to the pits for one last stint of trading before the final bell tolls for the old ways. Clearly in his element, Jordan Melamed proves an excellent guide to this disorientingly chaotic environment, eliciting salty testimony from the battle-hardened traders whose philosophy is "you kill or be killed."

But it's in his conversations and confrontations with Leo that Jordan strikes documentary-film gold. Both of them articulate, conflict-hungry men with personal scores to settle, which they proceed to chew over on camera for our delectation. It's intrusive, perhaps even exploitative stuff, this very publuc display of one clan's dirty laundry. But the three credited editors ensures fairness to both sides and Melamed jr gamely includes several sequences in which his father effectively takes control of directing duties. And the process seems to prove as therapeutic for the Melamed men -- Leo's wife Betty is a serene presence, fleetingly glimpsed on the sidelines -- as it is entertaining and illuminating for the audience.

In these days when bankers and similar denizens of the financial world aren't exactly the recipients of global goodwill, Futures Past does more than just evoke sympathy for the uber-capitalist "devil." It's quite a clever little film about different forms of communication, and the crucial importance of face-to-face exchanges -- whether they involve huge sums of money or the even weightier currencies that dictate personal emotion and family dysfunction.

Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam ('First Appearance' Competition)
Production company: Open Outcry
Director / Screenwriter: Jordan Melamed
Producers: Alexander Janiuk, Jordan Melamed
Executive producers: Vincent Viola, David Solomon
Directors of photography: Sid Lubitsch, Slavomir Grunberg, Seth Hendrickson
Editors: Danniel Danniel, Jessica De Koning, Suzannah
Sales agent: Alexander Janiuk, futurespastfilm.com
No MPAA rating, 91 minutes