HIFF: The Gory Details of Corruption & Death
Our Look at Two Groundbreaking Films on This Year’s Film Festival Roster
by Kara Westerman
I taste-tested two wonderful films from the abundance of The Hamptons International Film Festival’s 2018 roster.
Don’t miss the world premiere of the new documentary, “The Panama Papers”, directed by veteran documentarian Alex Winter, (“Trust Machine”, “Deep Web”), and co-produced by Laura Poitras, (“Risk”, “Citizen Four”), which is a start-to-finish thriller about global money laundering, in an age that one journalist in the film dubbed “near French Revolution levels of economic inequality.”
The film starts when a person calling themselves John Doe offers access to documents from the Panamanian law firm and corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca to two relatively unknown journalists at the paper Süddeutsche Zeitung in Munich, Germany. The digital documents reveal the identities of key players in the secret world of the law firm’s wealthy clients. By setting up offshore companies, or shell companies, or “special purpose vehicles,” a term Mossack Fonseca liked to use, they shielded the super rich from paying tax on income.
Like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden before him, The Panama Papers’ leaker, John Doe, is a whistleblower who aims to be our global conscience. In his Panama Papers Manifesto, written after the publication of the documents, he refers to the information contained in the papers as “…a complete erosion of ethical standards, ultimately leading to a novel system we still call Capitalism, but which is tantamount to economic slavery,” and says, “So now is the time for real action, and that starts with asking questions.”
Director Alex Winter’s idea was to construct the film “…like a political thriller, which is really what the story was. I wanted people to feel what it was like for these two journalists at Süddeutsche Zeitung, respected, but relatively unknown, underdog journalists who were handed the scoop of a lifetime. What do they do with it? How do they make sure it’s protected and gets out into the world properly?”
Mr. Winter believes that investigative journalists are really the “unsung heroes of our immediate present. This is a period of great threat. Media and journalists are under siege, both by nefarious actors who want to dismiss what they’re reporting or silence them, or because these outlets are so overburdened financially.”
When the story was initially published in 2015, Mr. Winter told me, it didn’t stick.
“Those in power in politics on both sides of the aisle, corporations, media outlets, and some celebrities, just wanted this story to go away, and the story was very quickly buried. That’s why I wanted to give it a big, broad documentary examination,” he told me.
There’s a reason why The New York Times and The Washington Post and other big papers rejected the Panama Papers leak when it came to them, he said.
“They only picked the story up, I would say ‘quasi-begrudgingly,’ after it was broken by the other coalition of journalists. There are just narratives that are not often given free reign to be discussed, and those are often the ones I’m interested in exploring.”
It was much too big a story for one news outlet to handle, so the editors of the Süddeutsche Zeitung made the difficult decision to share the leak with the ICIJ, The International Consortium Of Independent Journalists, who spearheaded the huge project, ultimately gathering over four hundred journalists, who took part in the collective effort to secretly investigate and release 11.5 million leaked documents simultaneously across the world in 2015.
The global story eventually incriminated 12 world leaders, 128 politicians and public officials, celebrities and other public figures. The collaboration on a story this big could also offer safety, some thought, from retaliation by people in power.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s corporations alone were named over three thousand times in the leaked documents.
“It’s very rare to have a businessman turned president who is so blatantly and heavily involved in Offshore,” said Mr. Winter. “On the left you have Justin Trudeau and major players in his administration. It’s everywhere. It’s Nike, it’s Apple. It’s every major corporation for the most part, and most major government players.”
Tax evasion and money laundering aren’t exactly sexy topics, at least not for those not committing them on a large scale. All of the 23 journalists Alex Winter interviewed for his film struggled with how to make an age-old subject like corruption fresh for their readers. This was another story about the 1 percent performing dastardly deeds — why was this any more relevant than other stories that had come before? How do journalists convince those of us too busy to pay much attention to anything beyond surviving to pay attention to this story?
“The systemic corruption we’re talking about in this film is really perpetrated by everybody, entire structures of government are implicated,” said Mr. Winter. “Banks, lobbyists, politicians, media outlets are funded by huge organisms of this very corrupt system. A lot of the information we get from news organizations and politicians can be skewed in their favor. It was really important for me to show this as a systemic problem. If you’re thinking it doesn’t matter that the lion’s share of public money that we need for public services around the world is being stolen, then you’ve been propagandized.”
The truth is there probably wasn’t ever a time when the ruling class weren’t divvying up the world, hoarding gold, and intermarrying to accumulate territory and consolidate wealth.
“My epiphany in working on this film, “ Winter told me, “was that it became jaw-droppingly clear that this wasn’t a case of just thousands of of acts of criminality. It was revealing an entire system, essentially of how our economy really works. Income inequality is systemic by design, not happenstance — that was really staggering to me. When you have systems run by very wealthy people who have the ability to change laws, then over time you can construct a system that is essentially a kleptocracy, that steals money from the poor and the middle class and hands it to the wealthy.”
Winter reminded me that though this story seemed to appear on the scene out of nowhere, there had been “…brave, dogged people trying to get the public to understand for decades how they are being robbed, and how the middle class is being destroyed, and how the working and lower classes are being kept poor.”
The Panama Papers has gorgeous arial shots panning hundreds of moored yachts in their slips off islands surrounded by turquoise water, contrasting vividly with overhead views of slums sometimes abutting directly onto glass-walled, sparkling cities of commerce.
The Panama Papers themselves offer an unfolding map of connections, a who’s-who, a grid of connections, a way to trace the billions of units of currency moving secretly around the globe at any given time, the gory details of the real, yet hidden, economy. One can easily imagine Mossack Fonseca’s “special purpose vehicles” navigating offshore waters, and docking at their destinations, which are also states of mind.
In these paradises one might see Vladimir Putin cavorting with his favorite billionaire cello player on horseback, Bashar al-Assad joking with Donald Trump at an impromptu game of five-card stud, Ruhollah Khomeini having a steam, communists playing golf with fascist dictators and movie stars, the ghosts of Jackie and Aristotle Onassis and even Hitler — all members of an elite, mostly fraternal order, in which membership used to be inherited by royals, who were connected worldwide by blood. The 1 percent are also a fraternity in which membership carries more weight than any mere political or religious ideology — the super-rich are cousins.
“The Panama Papers is a vast trove of data that will be revealing stories for years,“ said Winter. “Daphne Galizia, a journalist in Malta, was assassinated with a car bomb right in the middle of while I was shooting, a year-and-half after the papers were released. There are still real dangers involved in reporting these stories.”
In John Doe’s Panama Papers Manifesto he says, “In this system — our system — the slaves are unaware both of their status and of their masters…The horrific magnitude of detriment to the world should shock us all awake. But when it takes a whistleblower to sound the alarm, it is cause for even greater concern. It signals that democracy’s checks and balances have all failed, that the breakdown is systemic, and that severe instability could be just around the corner.”
But he is not wholly pessimistic: “Yet we live in a time of inexpensive, limitless digital storage and fast internet connections that transcend national boundaries. It doesn’t take much to connect the dots: from start to finish, inception to global media distribution, the next revolution will be digitized. Or perhaps it has already begun.”
“The Panama Papers” will be shown at East Hampton’s UA Cinemas on Saturday, Oct. 6 at 6:45 p.m. and on Sunday, Oct. 7 at 7:15 p.m.
Into the vacuum of a community college biology class, stuck in time, where most of the students are sleeping, a Hasidic cantor in full traditional dress arrives quietly through a back door and takes a seat. The odd juxtaposition of these images makes perfect sense in the world of one sweet and beautiful film.
“To Dust” is a darkly comic first feature directed by Shawn Snyder and produced by husband and wife team Alessandro Nivola, (“Disobedience”, “Laurel Canyon”), and Emily Mortimer (“The Newsroom”, “Match Point”), long-time Amagansett locals and actors.
Geza Rohrig plays a Hasidic cantor having trouble coping with the death of his wife. Searching for relief from gruesome nightmares about his wife’s decaying body, he finds a community biology professor, Matthew Broderick, somehow willing to teach him more about the process. According to the HIFF press release “the two form an unlikely bond via clandestine biological experiments, despite the blasphemous consequences.”
“The tone of the film is so unique and unusual. There were people who were skeptical that you could marry a comedy with subject matter about death and rotting corpses. It’s hard to pitch that!” Alessandro Nivola told me, laughing.
Five years ago Mr. Nivola and Ms. Mortimer started their production company, King Bee Productions, in order to produce a series that Ms. Mortimer had written, which became the HBO series “Doll & Em,” starring Ms. Mortimer and her best friend, Dolly Wells.
“We didn’t really know our ass from my elbows as far as how to go about it,“ Mr. Nivola told me. “We just learned on the job. It was a lot of bullshitting and pretending to know what I was talking about. But by the end of the second season, I did know what I was talking about, sometimes from learning it the hard way!”
Mr. Nivola is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and Ms. Mortimer got her degree from Oxford University.
“We decided we had gotten to a point where we knew the best people in the business and we had these high-class educations that had been going to total waste! We thought we should put all of that to work somehow, and get involved in making movies from every angle instead of just one.”
Ms. Mortimer found the script for “To Dust” while she was on a panel of judges for the Tribeca Film Institute Sloan Screenwriting Competition.
“We both loved the script, which won the competition, and we thought we could do it on a modest scale…of course, we hadn’t taken into account what it would be like to get a pig to do what you wanted it to do…” Nivola told me.
“To Dust” is category-defying and all the more rich for it. The film takes you by turns. Besides being a comedy and drama, it is also partly a horror film, a buddy film, a road picture, and at moments a Howard Hawks-esque slapstick. It is absurd in the way life is absurd, when you take a small step back. And yet somehow it manages to be low key, and a profound and moving examination of grief from multiple perspectives.
Mr. Nivola laughed when I asked him how involved they were as producers on their first feature. “We had the cinematographer living in my mom’s apartment and we were driving the entire crew to Staten Island every morning over the Verrazano Bridge,” he said. “The shoot was really hard. We just didn’t have money for anything, so we were trying to do it all ourselves. It’s not for the faint of heart.”
“It took us two years to raise the money, and every person who worked on it did it as a labor of love.” said Mr. Nivola. “They all really responded to the script. We loved the director, Shawn Snyder, when we met him and he had a really strong idea of how he wanted to make the film. Emily had worked with the cinematographer, Xavi Gimenez, when he shot Transsiberian, which Emily was in. It’s really high class. We had a dream cast that came together easily and naturally. We were so lucky to get Geza Rohrig, who starred in the Oscar-winning best foreign language film, Son Of Saul. Geza loved it the minute he read it.”
Matthew Broderick loved it too, said Mr. Nivola.
“Matthew is a friend and neighbor in Amagansett and we just called him up and said “We have a very odd and interesting proposition for you and you kind of have to take a chance on us, but we think it could be a great role for you.’ Even though the shoot was unglamorous and dreary, I think Matthew thinks it was worth it for him to slum it.”
During the two-year process of producing “To Dust,” Mr. Nivola was offered a role playing a Hasidic Rabbi in the film “Disobedience” with Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams.
“I couldn’t believe it. I would come into our office every week as I was growing the the beard for the rabbi in “Disobedience,” and I was slowly starting to look more and more like Shmuel, the cantor in the film we were producing. It was an ongoing joke,” he said.
Because of his work in “Disobedience,” Mr. Nivola became close to many of the Orthodox Lubavitch people in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, especially the family of Zalman Raksin, who took him under their wing, helping him with the pronunciation and physicality that he needed to play the character. Mr. Zalman ended up becoming the Hasidic advisor for their production of “To Dust,” and he and his son ended up playing characters in the film.
“He really helped us bridge the divide. It allowed us to be accurate and respectful of the Orthodox community,” said Mr. Nivola. “Those two movies were a great coincidence.”
The film went on to win the audience award and Shawn Snyder won as best first-time feature director at The Tribeca Film Festival.
Gorgeously unembellished by its cinematographer and director, the film is as spare as the plain pine box that Shmuel’s wife is buried in. But the two main characters are full of surprises and deviations from what could have become caricatures. We see the biology professor at home rolling a joint and wearing an ex-girlfriend’s frilly robe, Shmuel emptying a jar of Gefilte fish into the toilet so that he can collect some of the earth from his wife’s grave, his sons with a flashlight trying to dispel a demon through his toe while he sleeps.
Offering insight into worlds usually closed to us, there is a beautiful balance struck by the subtle performances from actors who know how to portray complex characters who are anything but living on one note. It’s difficult to walk the line between irreverence and mockery, but there is never a doubt that no one is being ridiculed here. These characters are so like us that we can actually go with them into shocking and far fetched situations, and by the middle of the film we ride the line deftly between the comedy and tragedy into deeper and stranger truths.
It couldn’t be in more keeping with the delicate humor of the film than to have life imitate art near the end of the shoot.
Mr. Nivola recounted that “a park ranger in Staten Island flipped his lid one night ’cause he didn’t think we had our equipment out in time. He started hurling furniture around, and Matthew Broderick was trapped in his little closet of a dressing room, too afraid to come out! We got this call saying, ‘Ummm…I think the park ranger might be trying to kill me.’ We had to come rushing out there and have Emily sweet-talk this guy. She eventually charmed him out of his murderous instincts.”
“To Dust” will show at East Hampton’s UA Cinemas on Saturday, Oct. 6 at 9:15 p.m. and at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Sunday, Oct. 7 at 6:30 p.m.
The 26th annual Hamptons International Film Festival will take place over Columbus Day Weekend, October 4 through 8, 2018. Passes and packages for the HIFF 2018 festival are now on sale. The full online film guide is now available, and individual tickets went on sale on Monday, Sept. 24. For more information, call 631.825.0050 or visit www.hamptonsfilmfest.org.
You can hear the full audio interviews for this article on Phantom Hampton Podcast at www.Patreon.com/phantomhampton.
Kara Westerman is a fiction author, teacher, oral history facilitator and writing workshop leader. She received her fiction MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and produces and hosts the podcast Phantom Hampton: Stories From Where The Rest of Us Live.