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Corruption in Films

International Film Festival in cooperation with Transparency International Slovensko prepared debate and several introductions to the films about corruption, which launched today’s introductory discussion at 11:00 at the Hotel Carlton with directors Srdjan Knezevic, Alexandru Solomon, Károly Makk and Pablo Trapper. Gabriel Sipos, Pavel Nechala, and Peter Gogola, from Lesy SR  joined the discussion with closer look at the issue of corruption in Slovakia. The discussion was led by artistic director Matthieu Darras.

Organizers of the festival have prepared a thematic section called The Bad Sleep Well. Slovak audience can look up 10 films, which are devoted to corruption topic as a film noir, thriller, psychological dramas, or investigative document.

The Bad Sleep Well

Akira Kurosawa, whose centenary of birth is celebrated this year, established fifty years ago already that the bad sleep well. Internationally known for his epic adventures such as Seven Samurai, the Japanese master decides, as he has just created his own production company and is thus completely free on the choice of his projects, to direct a socially-committed fiction. Whereas Japan witnesses an extraordinary economic growth after the war, Kurosawa takes an interest in a new delinquency, to be found in upper classes. “Some high-ranking officials are capable of such evil by easily hiding behind the façade of big corporations. I wanted to unmask this sort of men and to make a film about high finance corruption”, he was then explaining. In what is probably one of his most ambitious works and a neglected masterpiece, Kurosawa dissects the most shameful mechanisms of corruption (hush money, backhander, slush fund, bullying, etc.) and the shady connections between corporation and politics milieus. Extraordinary, The Bad Sleep Well is both a denunciation of a perverted system and a confession of impotence. Only subordinates, who are designated scapegoats, are getting worried by police, and never the backers.

Gangster? This is business!

Twelve years sooner already, American cinema was evoking in a mesmerizing film noir by Abraham Polonsky drifting of post-WWII capitalism. Force of Evil follows a Wall Street Lawyer, Joe Morse, who works for the underground world of gambling, notably a mysterious Ficco… Force of Evil shows how the sense of impunity goes hand in hand with the discourse of self-justification. When interrogated about the illegal character of his activities, one of the protagonists defends himself with a revealing “What do you mean gangster? This is business!” Sixty years later, the very same discourse is adopted by Romanian tycoons in front of the camera in Alexander Solomon’s Kapitalism – Our Improved Formula. Unfortunately for Abraham Polonsky, a forerunner of the “cinema of denunciation”, his career was blacklisted by McCarthyism, and thus completely ruined. Nevertheless, the year 1960, when The Bad Sleep Well was released, marks the beginning of a heyday of the political cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. While many films have -rightfully- been put on a back shelf of the cinema history, others, thanks to their exemplary civic engagement, forceful denunciation and unconventional creativity, are still being appreciated despite the passing years. Among them are Hands over the City and Réjeanne Padovani. The two films, made by Francesco Rosi and Denys Arcand within ten years from each other (1963 and 1973 respectively), have more than one point in common. Based on real events, they deal with one of the most widespread forms of corruption: the one between politicians and businessmen on the municipal level. Whether it is in Naples or Montreal, public works (“renovation” of a neighbourhood, construction of a motorway) have always been a huge source of self-enrichment by the most powerful. Collusion is of the same nature, and this proves that despite cultural differences, no country is safe from the curse of corruption. And that, like in Japan, the law of silence rules everywhere: troublemakers are being silenced, be it by making a murder look like suicide or by pouring concrete over a body. Francesco Rosi and Denys Arcand also point out that treating apparently austere topics does not necessarily mean neglecting the mastery of mise-en-scène or a certain form of humour.

The time of anti-heroes and whistleblowers

After the 1980s and 1990s, which saw, with rare exceptions, the depoliticising of cinema, the 2000s mark a comeback of the corruption onto the screen. In addition, they mark the emergence of less black-and-white thinking, with movies ceasing to put the good on one side and the bad on the other. The permeation of illegal and traditional business activities reaches its climax; this situation is all the more dangerous as it hangs over whole economic sectors, becoming almost imperceptible. In cinema, this prompted the production of some of the most exciting films of the decade. To portray the ever-increasingly complex and integrated world, filmmakers develop multiple storylines thrillers, often supported and inspired by investigation material of journalists based on real case stories.

In the United States especially, around the Steven Soderbergh/George Clooney tandem, where, in line with a long cinema tradition, top film talents question the ethics and the integrity of the 21st-century man. In a corporate world ready to do absolutely anything for increasing the profit, our heroes are morally shaken. All the more so as they have to face the ideological victory of corruption. Indeed, the idea that corruption is necessary to remain competitive in the current world economic war has become generally accepted. Just like the one that all men are expendable: if you refuse to take a step, someone else will do it instead and will profit from it. However, a new trend has appeared: that of whistleblowers, people who reveal political and financial scandals with the support of media. But these are no white knights; their ethics are often questionable and their motives dubious. In Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, George Clooney has been handling for years the dirty work of a major New York law firm before finally rebelling against it. And if by using the most ingenuous tricks, he eventually manages to prove the culpability of the company, the film doesn’t end with the bad sleeping in prison. One can imagine that they will manage to be granted immunity from prosecution thanks to their multiple connections in the judiciary system.

Electronic bank accounts and tax havens

On our side of the Atlantic, the films dealing with political and financial scandals seem to be getting much scarcer. Therefore, the TV-produced film by Belgian helmer Lucas Belvaux, Les Prédateurs, is all the more exceptional. For the first time screened outside of France, this three hour-and-a-half epic deals with the biggest multi-case scandal of the 90’s in France, the so-called ‘Elf case’ after the giant oil company now renamed ‘Total’ (and the biggest French corporation in term of revenues). Besides being a riveting thriller, Les Prédateurs is daring to the extent that it keeps all the real names of business men and politicians involved, and as it reveals a gigantic network of corruption, notably passing by post-colonial practices of France in Africa.

At the time of multinational corporations, electronic bank accounts and tax havens, corruption has long gone global. This is precisely what The International is about. As its title clearly indicates, Tom Tykwer’s film shows how companies have found new and almost ‘invisible’ means to disguise some of their practices. Illicit traffic of all sorts is backed by Luxembourg-based banks and mafia’s dealings are treated in the same way as “normal” ones. There is no more a difference between dirty money laundering and respectable business. The lure of profits is the only thing that matters. Faced with this volatility of money, the cop from The International finds himself helpless, always lagging at least two steps behind. Even though he is an agent of Interpol, his struggle leads nowhere as the police fail to cooperate. Borders only exist for righters of wrongs. To achieve his goal, the protagonist will therefore have to employ “unofficial methods”…

What’s up in East?

Big corporations and virtual modes of money laundering make it all the more difficult for citizens to understand, grab and be concerned of the corruptions that happen next door. How can one possibly fight his/her own social apathy, act and make a difference? This is the reason why ‘The Bad Sleep Well’ section presents brand new films coming from Eastern Europe countries (Romania, Serbia, Hungary) facing very similar social contexts as Slovakia. It needs for example the Hungarian master Károly Makk to take up the torch of the socially-committed fictions of the 60’s. In the TV film The Way You Are, Makk criticizes the small-town corrupted notables, characteristic of post-communist countries. The enterprise, featuring some of the major Hungarian actors, is very much welcomed.

Transition from communist to capitalistic times, and the many occasions of fast personal enrichments it has been generating, is at the core of the two remaining films of the program. Directed by Srdjan Knežević, Washing Films courageously inquires on the suspicious methods of privatization in the Serbian cinema field during the transition period and on the most recent conflicts of interest concerning the financing of films. Of course, resemblance to the privatization of Koliba Film Studio and latest developments in the Slovak Audiovisual Film Fund is let at the sole appreciation of IFF Bratislava’s audience. Finally Kapitalism – Our Improved Formula is an eye-opening looking at Romania’s new billionaires and the way they’ve co-opted the corruption put in place by Nicolae Ceaucescu. What is the scariest in Alexandru Solomon’s documentary is not necessarily the arrogance of those Oligarchs, not even the fact no one involved in the 462 corruption cases in Romania has ever been sentenced. What most certainly assures that these men will eternally sleep well is the complete indifference of John Doe. As a famous TV journalist explains, far from condemning these practices of their elite, common people either envy or admire them. In a country where tricking the system remains a norm in order to survive, Mr. and Ms. Doe only regret that they were not the ones smart enough to quickly make a million – and later on many, many more – when it was possible. “This is the way it works in…” Just fill the three dots with the country of your choice!

Official text to the section on corruption prepared by Matthieu Darras

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