When the Panama Papers were first released in 2016, with millions of documents leaked from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca showing how the world’s wealthiest use and abuse tax havens to hide their money, the documents revealed a previously unseen world of financial secrecy and tax fraud.
The release of the documents helped topple leaders in Iceland and Pakistan, with implications reaching dictators like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. And the fallout continues to this day: on Tuesday, the U.S. government indicted four men tied to Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm at the heart of the leak.
But the revelations didn’t necessarily make for great visuals — nor, of course, do issues like tax policy and company formation.
Enter Alex Winter. The renowned director, whose films have explored topics like bitcoin and Donald Trump’s election, saw the makings of a feature-length documentary in the leak. (Netflix apparently had a similar thought, recently green-lighting a film based on the Panama Papers starring Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman.)
Winter’s film, The Panama Papers, was released last week on Epix. It not only dives into the offshoring industry — exploring how the world’s wealthiest people dodge taxes, clean their stolen wealth, or hide their money from prying eyes — but it also highlights the work of investigative journalists who uncovered and analyzed the papers.
The feature-length documentary spans continents, from Europe to Latin America, and features dozens of people involved bringing the Panama Papers to light, from enterprising journalists to activists who have been sounding the alarm about offshoring threats for years. Even more impressively, the film provides a cogent, coherent story, translating the massive offshore industry into a gripping saga.
“I think what the Panama Papers did that perhaps hadn’t been done before is that… it really laid out the machinations of how these systems work in such a clear-cut way,” Winter told ThinkProgress. “It was the first absolutely soup-to-nuts exposé of this system, that I think it really showed how systemic the problem is — how it really is the economy itself, not just some players operating operating on their own terrain.”
But the film isn’t simply a foray into the assorted clients taking advantage of Mossack Fonseca’s services to move millions of dollars (or more). While there are charts tracing, say, Putin’s personal finances, and scenes of the Icelandic prime minister’s office being pelted with eggs, the film avoids focusing solely on the high-profile names caught up in the unfurling scandal.
Rather, the film takes pains to center the Panama Papers in the broader modern economy. As one journalist told Winter, the offshoring industry was always perceived as a small, strange conclave for a handful of the world’s mega-wealthy.
But as the Panama Papers illustrated, this system of moving money without anyone — citizens and government regulators alike — noticing spans all countries, and is by no means relegated only to heads of state.
“The systems are so similar, if you’re a dentist in southern France or Vladimir Putin or Bashar al-Assad or the prime minister of Pakistan. Whether you’re the head of state or an average Joe, the mechanisms are pretty much the same,” Winter said. “It’s not about people taking just a few deductions — they’re taking actual resources, and siphoning resources out of your country.”
“If the U.S. changed their laws, the rest of the world would absolutely follow.”
Unfortunately, given that the Panama Papers revelations coincided with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the original leak didn’t generate nearly as much interest in the U.S. as it did elsewhere. But as Winter told ThinkProgress, much of that lack of interest also stems from a pernicious myth about how Americans can easily enter the ranks of the wealthy by simply working harder.
“In the U.S… [there’s this] notion of the American Dream,” Winter said. “I think Americans have been so successfully propagandized by politicians and the media, they end up banging on the door of a club [for the wealthy] that will never let them in.”
Likewise, as Winter said, there’s a narrative for many Americans that the mega-wealthy are simply doing what anyone in their position would do financially — and that, even worse, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with it. “When you have an accountant say that they’re not doing anything illegal, that they’re just going to get these clients to take certain deductions, that the government is going to take all their money if they don’t — people think, ‘Well, hell, I’m already paying enough, I’ve already paid enough, I’ve already paid my dues to society!'”
Another point that threads the film, and which should give American pause, is that the world’s largest offshore providers aren’t locales like Switzerland or Hong Kong, but the U.S. itself. From shell company providers in Wyoming and Nevada to the U.S.’s unwillingness to provide foreign governments information on foreigners who own American bank accounts, America is one of the world’s offshore meccas — and helped set up a model for financial secrecy that other countries have followed.
“If the U.S. changed their laws, the rest of the world would absolutely follow,” Winter told ThinkProgress. “So you didn’t see giant American names in the Panama Papers, and it didn’t take down governments here — but much of that is because our laws allow people to hide that much better. If you’re in the U.S., you don’t have to go to Mossack Fonseca to do that.”
Thankfully, and due in no small part to the Panama Papers, the U.S. has recently begun cleaning up shop. States like Delaware and Wyoming are on track to no longer allow the formation of anonymous companies at some point in the near future, and anonymous real estate purchases are no longer permitted in places like New York and Miami. All of this coming, counterintuitively, in the midst of one of the most corrupt administrations in decades — and under a president who has likewise dodged taxes wherever he could.
This week’s indictments came a few days after German authorities raided Deutsche Bank, also related to information gleaned in the Panama Papers, showing the repercussions of the leak are ongoing and will continue to provide material for future films for years to come.
“The Deutsche Bank thing was interesting, because I’ve been telling people all along that this is a very, very deep leak that is going to take years to work through,” Winter said. “There’s a lot more coming down the pike.”