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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

 

Two great docs and the drama of the month

 

06/24/2015

Gerald SchmitzThe Price We Pay
(Canada)

I’ve highlighted documentaries in recent months because so many offer a richer viewing experience more deserving of attention than most titles on the theatrical marquee. Exposing our flawed tax systems may not seem like a fun time at the movies but you owe it to yourself to see Harold Crooks’ brilliant take on who pays, who doesn’t, and why.

The Price We Pay (http://www.thepricewepay.ca/) argues that many large multinational corporations and wealthy individuals engage in tax avoidance to the tune of trillions of dollars annually through a sophisticated and secretive network of tax havens that have developed in recent decades. It started with the “Eurodollar” market of the post-war period that turned the City of London into the leading global financial centre attracting big money from all over in search of shelter from governments and tax authorities. The city still runs much like a private club that makes its own rules.

A number of offshore havens have also emerged in the British Channel Islands, Caribbean islands such as the Caymans (where Canadian banks have a strong presence), and elsewhere. These very low-tax or no-tax jurisdictions become the nominal “headquarters” for hundreds of corporations to declare income even though their activities are located in others places. In effect, it’s a legal fiction for the sole purpose of escaping taxes. I like the French term paradis fiscaux — fiscal paradises. Great for big business and the one per cent, but with the result that the state is deprived of needed revenues while shifting more and more of the tax burden to the 99 per cent.

Among the film’s many merits is the in-depth and coolly analytical way in which Crooks (The Corporation) examines the various schemes and strategies employed for avoiding or minimizing tax. He interviews a wide range of financial experts and scholars, including Brigitte Alepin and star economist Thomas Piketty. Some of the most telling dramatic moments are drawn from hearings in the British Parliament and U.S. Congress in which the actions of high-tech corporate giants (Apple, Amazon, Google) have come under withering scrutiny — not for being illegal but on the grounds of questionable ethics. (Would that the Canadian Parliament were as aggressive.) Indeed the rise of the digital economy has increased the opportunities for vast sums to be shifted around in cyberspace in ways that lower taxes for the wealthy few. A discussion of high-frequency trading in which monetary exchanges occur electronically in nanoseconds leads to a modest proposal for a small financial transactions tax (akin to that advocated by Nobel economist James Tobin; sometimes referred to as a “Robin Hood” tax).

The highly informative approach taken by Crooks is very persuasive, making a compelling case that doesn’t depend on emotional or ideological rage against the financial system as one finds in documentaries on the Occupy movement (and Michael Winterbottom’s The Emperor’s New Clothes featuring Russell Brand). At the same time the evidence is so convincing that you may well be aroused to protest the fundamental unfairness of it all.

Meru
(U.S./India)

This spring’s devastating earthquakes in Nepal took a toll on the camps of elite mountain climbers and their sherpas. While reaching the summit of Everest has become big business, the ultimate Himalayan climbing challenge belongs to Meru in northern India near the headwaters of the Ganges. Until recently the sheer wall leading to Meru’s peak, known as the Shark’s Fin, had never been successfully scaled. John Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air, calls it the “anti-Everest” because climbers are entirely on their own, doing all the work and assuming all risks. Daring failed attempts and the eventual extreme conquest of the mountain are the subject of Meru (http://www.merufilm.com/), co-directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, one of the climbers and cinematographers. It’s an extraordinary story that won the Sundance audience award after playing to standing ovations.

The driving force of the threesome tackling Meru is Montana-based enthusiast Conrad Anker who made a first unsuccessful attempt in 2003. Despite pleas from wife Jenni (the widow of his late celebrated climbing partner Alex Lowe), Anker could not let it go at that and brought in Chin and another young American, Renan Ozturk, to make an audacious 2008 attempt that came agonizingly close but had to be aborted due to impossible conditions. Just 180 metres from the summit, it was a heartbreaking decision. Chin’s and Ozturk’s cameras capture the drama in intimate detail. The film also delves into the personal motivations of the climbers, especially Anker with his adopted family and narrator Chin, the son of Chinese refugees.

The intrepid trio refused to give up the dream, even after two of them almost died — Ozturk in a ski crash, Chin in an avalanche four days later. Incredibly, only five months later in 2011 the team was back preparing another assault on the Shark’s Fin from the 14,500-foot base camp. Overcoming storms and mishaps in a sequence of death-defying feats, this attempt finally reached the top in a burst of exhilaration.

What is as astonishing is how Chin and Ozturk managed to shoot spectacular footage while themselves engaged in such a demanding and dangerous physical effort. Meru has some of the most amazing cinematography you will ever see. A last image of the mountain on a starry night as the three make their descent is cosmically breathtaking. This is more than an extreme-sports movie. Its emotional depth and intensity moved me to see it twice at Sundance. Watch for an August theatrical release and a television broadcast on the Showtime network later this year.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
(U.S.)

A title like this might lead one to expect a weepy teen melodrama and take a pass. But director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s second feature, with a brilliant screenplay adapted by Jesse Andrews from his eponymous novel, is fully deserving of its double honours at Sundance where it took both the top jury and audience awards. It’s also the subject of an admiring cover feature essay in the spring issue of Filmmaker Magazine.

The “me” in the picture is Greg Gaines (a superb Thomas Mann), a geeky, acutely self-conscious and awkward high-school senior who hangs out with his more confident only pal Earl (first-time actor RJ Cyler, equally excellent). Greg covers his shyness with self-deprecation and an avoidance of social interactions. Instead the pair amuse themselves making bizarre mock versions of classic movies. (These are delightful wacky home-video creations, and indeed movie references pop up everywhere.) But then Greg’s mom learns that a classmate, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), has been diagnosed with leukemia and guilt pressures Greg into spending time with her. What feels forced if painfully honest at first develops into a truly beautiful friendship.

The story delivers no romances or miracles. There’s pathos, gentle humour, moments of joy and sorrow, with never a false note or lapse into maudlin sentiment. Seldom have adolescent anxieties and emotions been conveyed with such complexity and depth by actors equal to the task. The movie also gains authenticity by being shot in writer Andrews’ hometown of Pittsburgh in familiar locations including the house where he grew up.

Greg is a changed person as he narrates what he insists “isn’t a sappy love story.” Key to his maturation is looking beyond himself through Rachel and applying his amateur filmmaking talents to give her a lasting tribute. As Gomez-Rejon says: “It’s a very important part of Greg’s coming-of-age story that he learns to make a film for someone else.”

Now in theatres, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one of the best movies of the year.