The Financial Angle

The Price We Pay
(Canada, 92 min.)
Dir. Harold Crooks
Photo courtesy of Filmoption International
Docs about the plight of the ninety-nine present occupy ample programming slots within the doc contingent of film festivals these days. It's no wonder, since the Occupy Movement arguably provides the strongest cultural and ideological undertaking of this generation. The range of stories, theses, and arguments put forth in this class of documentaries is proof alone how much the plight of the ninety-nine engages the world.

Many of these Occupy docs, however, appeal primarily to the ideological element of the movement. Take, for example, last year’s Everyday Rebellion (which screened at Hot Docs earlier in 2014), which looks at several stories around the globe to unite various individuals as a collective fighting to change the way people think. Taking the moral approach to the Occupy Movement frequently makes for a compelling film experience, but these documentaries sometimes amount to empty rhetoric, if finely crafted and genuinely moving empty rhetoric at that. Appealing to ideology only really works if the audience is already inclined to believe it.

Harold Crooks (The Corporation) takes a much more pointed, intuitive, and persuasive approach with his meticulously researched doc The Price We Pay, which opens in theatres this week following its run with the Toronto International Film Festival’s Canada’s Top Ten series. The Price We Pay succeeds because it anticipates and counters the de facto response of the one percent to the ninety-nine: the financial angle.

Few docs probe the economics of the contemporary grey area of cyber capitalism quite as well as The Price We Pay does. Crooks attacks this angle of corporate malfeasance by assembling a host of talking heads from around the world who explain in layman’s terms the pervasive use of tax havens to sidestep stash funds off-shore and away from the tax collectors who will skim a bit off the top for social good. The costs of this practice are staggering as the data mounts.

The Price We Pay shrewdly examines the history of corporate tax evasion by chronicling the practices in various tax havens such as The Cayman Islands and the City of London. These global markets breed the rich/poor gap at a disastrous rate. Ditto companies like Amazon and Apple, which exploit the freedom and creative liberties afforded by globalization to avoid paying taxes and increase their take home pay. The interviews and archival footage pose an infuriatingly one-sided profit against a larger majority being shortchanged by few

The numbers in favour of the one-percent simply don’t add up as a host of experts and academics, including financial bigwigs and scholars like Saskia Sassen, detail the seemingly inconsequential fees lost to the black mass of no man’s land that total trillions of tax dollars. Economies exist in cyber-space, rather than in physical nations, so the transfer of funds in a nanosecond could slowly erode the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

The Price We Pay almost defies audiences not to become incensed with the flagrant loopholes and disparities that allow the economic divide to widen. The arguments are so compelling and the film conveys them so clearly and succinctly that a counterargument to the case is hard to make. Even a viewer with scant knowledge of finance can follow the logical argument of The Price We Pay and find its conclusion a no-brainer. The film eventually leads to a modest proposal that argues for minimal fees to be placed on transactions that shuffle funds around in cyberspace as dollars accumulate or collapse in impulse trades. These fees would be negligible, but they place on the moneymaker a nominal loss that could eventually add up to a change of mind that such volatile exchanges of funds might not actually be so profitable in the long term.

Crooks therefore arrives at an ideological appeal long after presenting a compelling logical argument to support the philosophical aim. The moral argument and the logical argument are therefore the same. One is an extension of the other, but The Price We Pay offers persuasive proof to convince both the heart and the head. This essay on moral bankruptcy is just the rallying cry the world needs.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

The Price We Pay opens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on Friday, March 13.
It opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne on May 3.

*Reviewed at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival