The Panama Papers

The Panama Papers delves into the tremendous feat of journalistic cooperation required to break the story of global corruption.

In 2015, an anonymous source leaked millions of documents revealing widespread tax evasion and money laundering amongst wealthy individuals and public officials to German journalist Bastian Obermayer. The documents, dubbed the Panama Papers due to their origins in Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, were reported on by hundreds of journalists across the globe, ultimately earning a Pulitzer Prize.

The feature-length documentary, The Panama Papers (available on Netflix from 1 May), delves into the tremendous feat of journalistic cooperation that was required to break the news of the scandal. With millions of documents from all around the world to parse and verify, the story required an unprecedented feat of journalistic cooperation. This combined effort forms a compelling narrative structure for this film from director Alex Winter (Deep Web, Downloaded, and also Bill of Bill & Ted fame).

This is not a film that goes in-depth into the contents of the documents or the legal and ethical intricacies surrounding the aftermath of the leak, and I admit I was relieved about that. As someone who knows very little about anything related to finance (ok fine, I know nothing), I still found the film legible. Winters successfully builds a narrative that makes the financial stuff comprehensible without dumbing it down – I watched The Panama Papers with my partner, who works in finance, and he also thought it an engaging film that raises interesting questions. And while I was captivated by the accounts of individual journalists working the story and intrigued by the questions the film poses about the future of such journalistic efforts, my partner was interested in what was being revealed about the systems behind the corruption. At one point, Ramón Fonseca compares the attack on his firm (co-founded with Jürgen Mossack) to going after a knife manufacturer in the wake of a stabbing. While I find the comparison a little far-fetched, there are certainly valid questions surrounding the issue of responsibility. Who needs to be held accountable: the individuals who laundered the money, the lawyers who showed them how to do it, or the systems that made it possible in the first place – or some combination of all three?

Photo by Amer Ghazzal/REX/Shutterstock (5623214c)

The film doesn’t really provide any answers to these questions, and that’s okay – the focus here isn’t on who’s to blame, but rather on how the information came to light and what’s happened since it did.

The leak of the Panama Papers was different from others in the past fifteen years – for one, the source remains completely anonymous (unlike with Assange’s Wikileaks or Snowden’s NSA leak) and the film makes no attempt to speculate who the so-called John Doe (voiced by Elijah Wood) may be or where his information came from. Secondly, the sheer magnitude of the information involved required an extraordinary degree of cooperation from journalists and news outlets. The impact of the papers was extensive, leading to the resignation and prosecution of public officials around the world, and the breaking of the story was successful in large part because reporters from all over came together to report on the stories relevant to their parts of the globe.

Corruption and entitlement are at the heart of this scandal – the ultra-rich keep getting richer through complex legal (and illegal) maneuverings while everyone else is struggling to survive times of economic and political turmoil. The Panama Papers is an engrossing look at the people who are fighting back against this corruption: the whistleblowers and the journalists who make their stories known.

The Panama Papers is available to watch on Netflix from 1st May. The film is also currently showing at the Bertha Dochouse. Tickets can be booked here.


Updated: Apr 29, 2019

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