All roads lead to Hollywood: The Kleptocrats unravels how $3.5 billion could go missing from a country’s taxpayer fund — and the many unlikely places it could go.
‘The Kleptocrats’ dares to dig deeper
Fiel Estrella (The Philippine Star) - December 7, 2019 - 12:00am

Prior to watching Sam Hobkinson and Havana Marking’s The Kleptocrats, I had not been aware that the title was in fact a very real word that’s been around since around the 1960s. (At least, if Google is to be believed.) It refers to the use of political power as a means to steal resources — a concept we’re all familiar with right here in the country, where corruption is about as subtle as, well, Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection.

The film, now streaming on the documentary-focused platform iwonder, takes a deep dive into a scandal that has roots in Malaysia and ties as far away as Hollywood. A fund called 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) is created from taxpayers’ money to pave a better future for the country, but it gets people curious when shady dealings begin to take place, such as a $1 billion investment in a company that isn’t exactly reputable and hasn’t even been around for a year.

It eventually comes to light that a total of $3.5 billion has been stolen from the fund, some of which becomes part of the budget for the Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle The Wolf of Wall Street. Key players include former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and someone by the name of Jho Low who, like all famous scam artists, has a penchant for parties and living well beyond his true means.

I was able to speak with director Havana Marking over email, where she shared her insight on the details uncovered in the documentary that were most unexpected, the challenges that came with the project, and why we’re all so caught up in these kinds of stories.

SUPREME: How did you come across the story and what drew you to it? Going in, what did you hope to investigate further about it?

HAVANA MARKING: Someone came to me with the story, but when I heard it I couldn’t leave it alone: what a story of our times! Our global financial systems are so easily manipulated and everyone in the chain who makes a profit will happily turn a blind eye. I was fascinated by how power was used in Malaysia, but also how the western companies — banks, real estate agents, the film world — were able to ignore the blindingly obvious and take the money. 

In unraveling the story, which details of it were most unexpected for you and which ones surprised you the least?

This is a story with a happy ending — and that was unexpected and inspiring. The US investigators, the journalists, but most importantly the Malaysian activists were tireless in their pursuit of justice. For Najib to lose the election — when he had tried to “buy” everyone else — showed “the power of the people” in its purest form.

With such a character-driven narrative, how did you go about selecting your interview subjects and sources? Which points of view needed to be represented to provide a 360-degree view of this level of corruption?

The most important — and the hardest — part was filming in Malaysia and representing the Malaysian people. It was not safe at that time for people to speak on camera and only the very bravest agreed to filming. Thank goodness the government has changed and so we had no fallout, but I know there were people who wanted to speak out but couldn’t.

During production, there were concerns of safety, lawsuits, censorship and other challenges. Did you ever feel inhibited or doubtful about pushing through with it? What kept you going?

Yes — all the filming in Malaysia was secret and worrying, for us, but obviously for the people we were filming. I was followed by Special Branch and questioned at one point. We had a lot of safety protocols in place, encrypted drives, secure communication, etc., but still members of the team were hacked and discredited along the way. It was hectic, and I don’t think I’ll do it again.

There were a million reasons why this film would be legally troublesome and some aspects of the story — especially the Hollywood angle — could not be covered as it was too libelous. But the fact that the (US) Department of Justice had proved and published so much allowed us to cover most of the story confidently. We had a lot of lawyers, though!

When you finished The Kleptocrats, did it give you any big realizations or new insights into filmmaking and storytelling?

Trying to tell financial corruption stories is very hard. There is so much technical detail that is befuddling. But ultimately if the people are fighting with passion, you can always make it work. Don’t get bogged down in the numbers — go with the heart.

New York magazine called 2018 “The Year of the Scam,” with a series of scandals that involved false identities, fraudulent endeavors, feigned social status and millions in stolen cash. Why do you think people are so interested in these stories, and how can we learn from them?

It’s extraordinary because many of these scams are so obvious when you see the bigger picture. For us on the street it seems incredible that they can get away with it, but if each individual link in the chain turns a blind eye, it is easy. Self-regulation doesn’t work when profits are this big.

What is the one thing you hope the film gets across to the viewer?

The fact is our systems are far too easy to manipulate and corrupt. We have to pressurize those in government to crack down on the offshore systems, the opaque real estate laws and mysterious money laundering scams. Things are moving in the right direction but organisations like Global Witness need support.

***

The Kleptocrats is now streaming on iwonder.

KLEPTOCRATS SAM HOBKINSON
Philstar
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