Sunday Story Break — Panama Papers
APRIL 10TH, 2016 — POST 097
This is the seventh in a series in which I try and find the movie in a current piece of news or from some pop cultural trope. Last week’s, entitled Native Blood, was based from a news article that wondered if the microbes found in indigenous populations could aid those in the developed world.
The world is in the throws of another huge leak of information. Estimated to be 100 times larger than Wikileaks, the Panama Papers were leaked by The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) recently and centre on a Panama-based corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca. With 11.5 million documents to parse, the journalistic world at large is going to take a while to discover and relate precise details about all the crucial players but the general narrative is taking shape.
Essentially, the services provided by Mossack Fonseca, specially in facillitating the incorporation of shell companies, allowed the evasion of corporate taxes, government corruption, and criminal activity to take place. These “three Cs” as Porter McConnell, director of the Financial Transparency Coalition, called them when speaking to reporters at Fusion are the reason people care about this leak. Fusion itself has offered some of the most comprehensive coverage of the leaks so far. Their longform piece Dirty Little Secrets succinctly outlines what we know so far as well as laying outlines which are expected to be filled in as this case progresses. Despite the recency of these leaks, and the incompleteness of their analysis, you can bet a bunch of screenwriters have hit the keys ready to mint this story on the silver screen (of perhaps even the small screen). With the movie seemingly an inevitability, I thought it’d be worth looking at what that could look like.
It’s incredibly easy to drown in events like this. Things like FIFA’s recent scandal, the Great Recession, Hurricane Katrina all operate at a superhuman scale that comprehending them from the level of a movie can seem daunting. What Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short provided, however, was three distinct and narrow lenses through which to view the state of the American, and inevitably global, economy in 2008. As such, the Adam McKay’s movie adaptation was on firm ground, not expressly concerned with portraying the entire event but inevitably doing just that. Finding that, or those, unique perspectives in this dense fog of information the Panama Papers are throwing up is the tricky part.
Both Ramon Fonseca and Jurgen Mossack would be fine candidates for a movie adaptation. Even though the implication is that they are certainly baddie-adjacent, one would be hard pressed to assert them as real villains. The scarier characters would be the bed fellows, whether corporate king or criminal kingpin, they kept. The journalists, those that uncovered and released these documents would also be an obvious choice for protagonists, driven by a hardline moral standpoint. However, all of these are obvious choices, and as such aren’t particularly compelling. The way these stories play out, especially once the dust on this thing has long settled, won’t be uniquely surprising.
The Fusion piece takes a small tangent to explain some of the functions Mossack Fonseca performed for its corporate clients. One of these functions was the appointing stand-in company directors to hide the identities of the true beneficial owners. A small detail revealed in the Panama Papers that Fusion draws out is that one of Mossack Fonseca’s own employess, Leticia Montoya, has been found to be in connection with around 10 000 companies as a stand-in director or shareholder. As Fusion notes “Ms Montoya earns around $900 a month in the HR department of the company”. Now this is a unique perspective.
Shell Games begins with Leticia working her desk job in the Panama offices of Mossack Fonseca. Despite the higher-ups at the company being a little on edge, they assure her the future of her position is certain. When arriving home to her husband making dinner and her sons playing PS2, she is accosted by men in black suits who take her into custody for the illegal activities of a company that she, without her knowledge, is custodial director of. Leticia quickly learns that attempting to fight in court is going to get her nowhere: there are thousands of suits being filed against her from the thousands of companies listed in her name. So what if she decided to take rightful control of one of these companies?
Sure, this line plays up the slightly absurd side of this scenario. I’m sure as more information is parsed through the machine currently chewing through the almost 3TB of leaked data will uncover more nuance and detail to find stories that are perhaps a little less silly. Even then, the strength of the eventual movie adaptation will be invariably measured by the strength of its distinct point of view.
Get in touch if you want to flesh out Leticia’s a little more.