It’s not often that something as dry as tax theory can result in an engrossing night at the movies, but credit Harold Crooks and his team for providing an exceptional articulation about the vagaries of “off shoring” in an accessible, engaging way with The Price We Pay.
Crooks co-wrote the narration for Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott’s 2003 Sundance winning doc The Corporation, and with his own film he manages to better that doc, maintain a level of even handedness when required while allowing a streak of advocacy to run through but never overwhelm the storytelling.
In many ways, The Price We Pay is even more balanced in its presentation, giving many voices from the world of finance a chance to dispassionately (but eloquently and engagingly) articulate the very real, very surreal world of virtual shell accounts, tax havens, and other machinations that are the purview of the 1%.
Told through a series of talking head interviews and simple motion graphics, Crooks peppers his work with well shot B-roll of city landscapes and Caribbean beaches, providing a visual respite to the heavy topics at hand. Yes, the film is highly pedagogical, but what’s refreshing is that it’s allowed to be both wonky and playful, pitting through clever yet fair editing differing points of view against one another.
The film is split into a series of chapters, tracing modern economic practices back to the unique history of the City of London, where its vestiges of pre-Norman rule allowed the square mile of the center of the city to craft its own regulations. These loopholes have been exploited by some highly intelligent people to create what’s alluded to as a “cloud based economy”, or a virtual series of City of Londons stretched out throughout the commonwealth, where for legal purposes exchanges are setup free from taxation or overt control.
It’s clear that many of Crooks interviewees have an overt cause to promote (many advocate for transactional taxation), but rather than some advertisement for the cause, or nebulous Occupy call for change, there’s both a specificity and intelligence behind the articulation of the ideas which is downright refreshing. Arguments for and against are presented (if not always in equal measure), and the film does well to avoid appearing shrill or alarmist. Instead, even the heavy operators within the world of finance help to point out the strangeness of this system, providing context for the trend for deregulation and historical precedent (and caution) for the recent rise is inequality and disenfranchisement.
The core issue that divides between what is right versus what is legal is of course the central debate, with many making a compelling case for both the necessity and the challenges with running corporations based on debateable ethics rather than hard-and-fast rules. There slips into the conversation some even older debates, such as the derision seen between the regulatory-minded French and the far less stringent Brits, tying again this debate to centuries of cross-Channel discourse about rules of law, the nature of the state, the role of the corporation and the reach of the rule of law.
Some may not be as engaged by what’s presented, but for the focussed viewer you’re going to find a beautifully subtle articulation of some highly complex and thorny issues. I believe this to be one of those great docs where regardless of ideology or presupposition the viewer will find a film with a point of view that still delivers adequately the many facets of the situation.
The Price We Pay is a complex, nuanced film about a complex, nuanced situation. It’s a terrific bit of journalism, giving the audience a peak into the peaks of the convoluted world of finance. Riveting despite its dry subject matter, this is one of the strongest docs of the year, one that’s both timely and highly provocative.