'The Price We Pay' ('La Face Cachee de l'Impot'): Toronto Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
An ire-raising but imperfect doc about inequality of wealth

Harold Crooks shows how much of the world's wealth is hiding in tax havens

About a decade ago, Harold Crooks was one of many writers involved with The Corporation, one of the most galvanizing docs to have been made about the perils of capitalism's status quo. In his first film as solo director, The Price We Pay, he covers similar ground, looking mostly at ways corporations manipulate their legal construction and exploit a global patchwork of laws to keep from paying taxes. Though convincing in its (not exactly obscure) point that something needs to be done, and occasionally enlightening, Price suffers in comparison to the earlier film, with points that are often not adequately explored and decorative flourishes that distract instead of enhancing. Though it will be appreciated on video by those who already agree with its points, it isn't the best film to make these arguments to those not already thinking about them.

The doc starts with some appropriately scary quotes and figures: By 2010, around 10 to 15 percent of the world's financial wealth was stashed in tax havens, hidden from governments who might tax it to support services that benefit us all. Once upon a time, some British colonies used "no taxation without representation" as a rallying cry for revolution; now corporations who can lobby governments as if they were human citizens enjoy "representation without taxation." The film explains that we're not talking about money laundering or similar illegal activity: As they testify before lawmakers (these tense, often funny moments are the film's highlight), representatives of companies like Apple and Amazon are clear about the ways in which they're following tax law. They're less clear explaining how huge percentages of their productivity should legally be thought of as existing in, say, the Cayman Islands.

Crooks does a nice job of tracing the growth of tax havens, showing how both the City of London and some of England's former colonies established zones with laws tailor-made for big business. Money didn't have to actually be in these places: Transactions could bounce around from one haven to another in perpetuity, without actually landing anywhere. Offshore finance "created 'cloud' money long before we had cloud computing," one interviewee says. (Crooks leans heavily on footage of clouds and lightning storms, to mild effect, throughout the film.)

But in its account of the many ways corporations shield their dough, the film lacks specifics that would be useful to many viewers. It will toss up a chapter heading like "The Double Irish," for instance, but fail to define this tax-avoidance scheme before it has moved on to the next chapter.

As one of the few pro-business speakers here puts it, though, complaining that a corporation isn't paying their "fair share" is problematic. If a country wants Apple to pay x percent of their income in the U.S., they need to change U.S. laws to make that happen. Many interviewees chime in about the difficulty here, showing how single nations can't act alone without driving companies to more friendly shores. Without some global cooperation, proposed remedies like a "Robin Hood" tax on financial transactions have little hope.

 

Production company: InformAction Films

Director: Harold Crooks

Screenwriters: Harold Crooks, Brigitte Alepin

Producers: Nathalie Barton

Director of photography: Alex Margineanu

Editor: Louis-Martin Paradis

Music: Ramachandra Borcar

Sales: Filmoption International

 

No rating, 93 minutes

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