Harold Crooks on The Price We Pay

Harold Crooks' probing documentary on corporate tax avoidance via offshore tax havens couldn't be timelier. This eye-opening exposé kicks off the mighty Take One Action! Film Festival in blood-boiling style

Feature by Rachel Bowles | 08 Sep 2015
  • The Price We Pay

Canadian filmmaker Harold Crooks (co-writer, The Corporation, co-director, Surviving Progress) returns to open Take One Action!, the socially conscientious film festival, which emphasises audience participation for social change. The documentarian's latest sobering and provocative masterpiece, The Price We Pay, focuses on the unprecedented inequality in 21st century societies due to an undermining of democracy, the welfare state and the working and middle classes through the increasingly lucrative scourge of offshore tax avoidance. A jaw-dropping exposé, The Price We Pay draws on expert testimony and a nuanced understanding of globalised, digitised economics, to vividly argue the case that offshoring’s threat to humanity’s future is on par with global warming. Redressing the balance, The Price We Pay posits a modest yet global Robin Hood tax on institutional financial transactions to redistribute some of the hoarded, stolen offshore wealth back to the tax-paying public, restoring a semblance of democracy and repairing the welfare state.

The Skinny caught up with Crooks to talk about his inspiring cinematic and social project.

The Skinny: The Price We Pay epitomises the Take One Action festival – both film and festival engage with the audience and offer a call to action, with charities, experts and grassroots groups in attendance. Is the festival of special significance to you?

Harold Crooks: Surviving Progress [2011], which I co-directed, had its second screening at the Take One Action Festival in Glasgow, two years ago, with a Q&A chaired by Christian Aid. I couldn't know at the time what my next film would be, but The Price We Pay became about a subject that is very central to their work, which is about the question of tax justice as a basis for a just society. So there is a very strong connection to Take One Action; it’s very relevant to the festival, to the festival's supporters like Oxfam and to an engaged audience. It's concerned with the sustainability of democracy in the face of the so-called ‘offshoring’ of the world's wealth. The film illuminates how this offshore world and tax havens are actually illegal and an accounting fiction. There is nothing there physically ‘offshore’ and the money is controlled from wherever – London, New York, Paris, Zurich. It is beyond democratic control and so in that sense, the secret jurisdictions of these tax havens are basically a fiction. They do not control anything [e.g. in the Cayman Isles] yet they play a legal role in allowing a vampire-like sucking of money from the social blood stream, draining public wealth, which is supposed to be the circulatory system of society.

Speaking of gothic imagery, "talking head" documentaries can potentially be visually repetitive, but The Price We Pay ducks that completely through arresting graphics and comedy. For example, economist Thomas Piketty’s graph of Western income disparity depicted the spectral, grotesque smiles of Thatcher and Reagan looming. Can you talk about creating those visuals and montages?

Given the cliché about 'death and taxes', and that those are things that none of us would rather think about, we knew it had to be a cinematic experience and tried to imagine how to make a film that people would actually want to watch. Visually, and in terms of the soundscape, we made a huge effort to create that cinematic experience. We were lucky to find this young, Vietnamese-Québécois motion design artist, Patrick ‘Defasten’ Doan, who just did the most brilliant job with the graphics, making them visually arresting but also digestible in terms of the central ideas of the film. His Piketty graphic is emblematic of that.

The film takes some very complex financial fictions and economic realities and makes them fathomable.

That's the goal, and it took over two and a half years to create that level of intelligibility. It's not an uncommon response to the film: people imagine they could never grasp the vastness of the global, fiscal world and the extent of its mismanagement, but they can. I think something else that enhances the creditability of The Price We Pay for ordinary people who are not interested in ideological arguments is that a lot of the critique of the financial system is coming from former insiders. Besides the former vice president of Goldman Sachs, Wallace Turbeville, besides Adair Turner, there's John Christensen, the former economic advisor to Jersey, there’s a former CO of a French bank, there’s a former vice president of the Chicago Stock Exchange, there’s a former senior partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the biggest accounting firms in the world that is very, very involved in the offshore industry. These people have seen this from the inside and they’re alarmed.

These people know intimately how our global finance system works and they’re saying it’s unsustainable!

Yes, and that means it is unsustainable. Turbeville says he fears a crash bigger than 2008’s, which led to one of the most enormous redistributions of wealth in the history of the world. I can't even imagine what that would be but it is a time for taking action, no question about it. We are being pushed into a post-democratic reality. Tax justice, pursued across international borders, is a viable way to force multinational corporations to evolve and act in a manner sustainable for humanity as a whole.

The Price We Pay’s TOA screenings (16 & 18 Sep, Filmhouse; 17 Sep, GFT) will be introduced by Harold Crooks and followed by panel discussions with Nairobi-based Alvin Mosioma (Director, Tax Justice Network – Africa), Chris Hegarty (senior policy and advocacy advisor, Christian Aid) and Jamie Livingstone (Head of Oxfam Scotland)

Take One Action! runs in various venues across Edinburgh and Glasgow 16-27 Sep. For full programme details, go to takeoneaction.org.uk