Filmmaker Mark Donne took to the stage of the East End Film Festival Opening Gala to reassert an unabashed love for his country, inadvertently echoing author JK Rowling’s previous definition of a patriot as someone who gives back to their nation, invests in its potential and favours those less fortunate. The villains of his documentary and opening film The UK Gold do not abide by this compassionate idiom, nor do they care to defend or justify their actions. Rejected outright by the tax avoiders whom he deigned to document, Donne instead took his camera to the likes of Channel 4’s Jon Snow, Private Eye’s Richard Books and UK Uncut’s Danielle Paffard, to have them chronologically chart the spiralling calamity of tax avoidance and its far-reaching consequences.
The UK press wrongfully demonises the unemployed and working class, yet as Donne helpfully reminds us, it is in fact the titans of the City that commit unequivocal treason, siphoning off an obscene sum of money into tax havens such as the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and the Virgin Islands. Developing nations like Zambia suffer as a result of corporations operating on their lands and making off with profits that could be used to invest in sanitation, education and healthcare. Dozens of trillions of pounds are stashed offshore; and although this is a worldwide embarrassment, Donne points his finger back at the motherland of the United Kingdom, the worst offender with its harbouring of 13 tax havens. As the talking heads inform us, all rhetoric from the likes of Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne are effectively countered by backroom deals initiating further loopholes, aiding and abetting greedy suits into thieving off with more and more of the nation’s money, while at the same time punishing the impoverished and disabled in order to compensate for the deficit.
Donne avoids the risk of accumulated facts compounding into a dry academia by framing his story around the journey of an unlikely protagonist. A well-spoken young vicar by the name of William Taylor is on hand to reposition the science of economics and its inevitable corruption as a fundamentally spiritual conflict. To those who presume Christianity and absolute conservatism to go hand in hand, Father Taylor’s earnest battle to become elected on the Common Council comes as a pleasant surprise, and a welcome alliance. “There is a demonic system at work here,” says Taylor of the immoral tax schemes, as Donne shoots strolling black suits in slow-motion, occupied by their mobile phones so as to emphasise a dubious disconnect. The effort undergone to present these financial chicaners as otherworldly can often seem a tad specious, though Donne’s motivation here ultimately benefits from the blanket rejection by City financiers, tax-dodging CEOs and Cabinet ministers such as George Osborne. Their complete absence from the documentary, besides the odd ground-level gaze at the towering skyscrapers in which they work, feeds into Father Taylor’s notion of a sinister force acting in the shadows, doing the devil’s work. The analogy may not be to everyone’s taste, though the slight spiritual imagery inferred in the cracks of an otherwise plain discourse is pointedly effective and refreshing. Does anybody remember the part where Jesus entered the Temple, patted the money launderers on the back and advised them on how to double their innings?
In addition to the City’s looming casinos, producer and cinematographer Joe Morris captures an even spread of some of the more recognisable, affluent areas of the nation’s capital along with its poorest, using generic stylistic touches of shifting focus and time-lapse photography to breeze underneath West’s narration. Perversely, the two marquee attractions of narrator Dominic West and composer Thom Yorke struggle to coexist in the space between interviews. Yorke’s loud, oppressive score drifts in and out of the mix all too eagerly, sometimes barely registering in spite of its volume, and at other times battling alongside West’s voice for audible supremacy.
If you’re the kind of person who’s learned about tax avoidance over the years in small news-fed increments, and have already been following similar documentaries of this ilk, such as 2010’s Inside Job, then there isn’t much new information to glean from this particular entry. Nicholas Shaxson, interviewed here, has already written extensively on the matter in his thorough tome Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World. And yet in spite of its familiarity, Donne’s documentary arrives with its landing wheels touching down upon a red-hot socio-political zeitgeist. With tax avoidance the talk of the town thanks to the People’s Assembly and UK Uncut, and as the UK’s coalition government peters out its final few corrupt years in power, The UK Gold is primed to strike a nerve with those in the know, and those who need to know more. Donne’s film may not be formally or informatively ground-breaking, though its succinct layman’s elucidation of a worsening criminality is, it can be argued, perhaps quite necessary at this precise moment in time.