The Gory Details Of Corruption And Death (Oct 2nd, 2018)

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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;” and “To Dust" 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”, “Doll & Em”), long-time Amagansett locals and actors, starring Geza Rohrig and Matthew Broderick.

The film "The Panama Papers," 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?”

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.

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.”

“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.”

“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.”

In the feature film "To Dust" 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.

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.

“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.

 

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.

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