Q&A with Michael Oswald, director of The Spider’s Web, Britain’s Second Empire
Monday 29 October 2018, by
The Spider’s Web, Britain’s Second Empire is a thoroughly researched, well-crafted and
documentary by Michael Oswald that explores the history of Britain’s tax havens and the system that encouraged their creation rooted in its colonial history. The documentary is freely available on Youtube. We caught up with Michael for a Q and A.
What motivated you to direct a documentary about this topic? Who are you hoping this expose will reach in particular?
I looked at documentaries about tax havens and financial secrecy and there seemed to be two kinds of documentaries on the topic. One type would feature a strong narrative but would lack an explanation of the underlying system, the viewer would be left none the wiser and with an impression that there was nothing really wrong with the system itself, next time you watch a documentary on dirty Russian money consider that Russian and Ukrainian money makes up only 0.2% of the money that flows through British tax havens. The second type of documentary would explain how the system worked but would lack narrative structure. I felt there was room for a documentary that explained how the system worked and followed a narrative structure. Britain and its dependent territories are the ideal candidates for such a documentary, The Spider’s Web explains why that is the case.
A retired MI6 spook attended a number of the early screenings of the documentary, and in the post screening Q&A he would always ask precisely the same question: "Why highlight Britain, why not focus on Hong Kong and China." And the answer to that question is of course the overwhelming role that the UK plays in this area. There is only one country snapping at the UK’s heels and that is not China, it is the US. To me it is bizarre that the UK can play such a major role in this area without attracting significant attention to itself, I hope the documentary will help to rectify that deficiency.
The aim of the film beyond this is also to help bring about an international order that empowers countries and I hope individuals in those countries. I don’t want to live in a world where I don’t know what is true, who I can trust, where I have no ability to affect change, where inequality is out of control etc. I hope the documentary reaches as many people as possible, not only in the UK but worldwide, we have dubs in Spanish, Italian, French and German. Countries and people need to put pressure on Britain to play by an agreed set of rules.
What made you decide on the specific structure, mood and general storytelling approach of the documentary? Were there particular filmmakers or films that influenced or inspired these choices?
I’m attempting to make narrative documentaries. I think a lot about how viewers experience the documentary and how the viewer can be an active participant and not simply a spectator.
The mood is influenced by the themes of the documentary, like power, the misuse of power, corruption and secrecy etc. in terms of influences I like archive based films and essay films, I like to be absorbed in a film and believe what I am seeing and being told is real. Path of Blood was a recent documentary I particularly liked.
We are in an age of documentary filmmaking, certainly the medium has never been this accessible. At the same time the mainstream media landscape is much more restrictive than it has been in the past. There is a real hunger for information out there, this provides an opportunity for outsiders, that may have otherwise not had the opportunity to be recognised, to tell stories that dig a little deeper from a different point of view and to hold a mirror up to power. It’s a fascinating and rewarding journey, there are some things about the society we live in that you can only really understand once you start challenging power.
It was done on a micro-budget. How did you best utilise the resources you had? How did you put the team together?
The money was spent on a narrator, the opening and closing track by Tim Hecker, archive footage, travel to Brussels and Jersey and shooters in Malaysia and New York. I’ve been making documentaries for 8-9 years now and I have not yet managed to secure funding for any project. If you consider the kind of salaries, that producers of Dispatches and Panorama type programs receive it is quite incredible that the system could be organised in such a way that you are either very well paid or receive absolutely nothing. It would be nice if there was something in between.
My main collaborator in The Spider’s Web was Sean Boucher who came over from the US to do a 15 week internship, we were able to shoot most of the documentary in that time. Sean also wrote most of the soundtrack for the film.
I give credits in exchange for expertise, I still have to do most of the boring work, but I get access to very talented people and the documentary is much better as a result. Some of the collaborators in The Spider’s Web were Simeon Roberts the Executive Producer who helped with promotion, John Christensen a Co-producer who checked the film word by word and is also heavily involved in promotion, Daniel Turi an Associate Producer who provided excellent feedback on the rough cuts. I feel humbled by how many people are willing to give their time and expertise, that includes all the translators and foreign language dubbers etc.
What obstacles (financial and otherwise) did you face? Did you find most people you wanted to interview were happy to talk to you?
Actually most people didn’t want to take part, I was in contact with some people for six months before they gave me a definitive no. My approach is to keep asking until I receive a definitive no. Of course some people just ignore you outright! I went to the IDFA in Amsterdam to try and raise funding for the documentary, I contacted every person who I thought might be interested in a film on tax havens and had meetings with a number of Commissioning Editors, Foundations, Film Funds etc. the interest was precisely zero.
The documentary is available on YouTube. Did you want to distribute it via different platforms, such as TV or independent cinemas?
The film’s first screening was in May 2017 at the Cine Pobre Film Festival in Mexico. Since November 2017 the film has been available to broadcasters and for public screening. In Europe and North America only TogetherTv, a small UK community channel broadcast it, but we did have 40-50 public screenings across the UK organised by NGO’s, community groups and universities. There was some interest from broadcasters and airlines in Asia and the Middle East. We struggled to get the film into festivals, there was total silence from the MSM, in short there seemed little interest in the West to acknowledge the issues the documentary raised. Youtube was a way to get around this silence and reach a wider audience. It is important to keep in mind that it does take a clear strategy to create momentum online, even before I started production I began to engage with individuals and groups who I thought might be interested in supporting the film. In that respect it helps that my main interest is narrative documentary storytelling, and there is no one correct way to do this, therefore I have a certain amount of flexibility when it comes to emphasis and message, as long as I believe the concern raised is relevant and genuine.
What advice would you have for aspiring filmmakers who want to make docs on a small budget?
Be prepared to spend many months and maybe years on your documentary and to take on and learn about roles you are not familiar with. It takes me at least 18 months to make a documentary, one of the reasons it takes so long is that I compensate for lack of funds with research and narrative structure. What makes the effort worthwhile is the creative satisfaction and the fact that I can see the improvement not only in the film but in the audiences’ reaction to the film.
Here are some questions I ask myself before I start a documentary:
Is it possible to make this film without any funding?
Are the main protagonists interested in taking part?
Will the film still be relevant or interesting in 5 or 10 years time?
Is it likely that a major broadcaster will make a film on the same topic or with the same point of view before my film is finished? If yes you might want to reconsider.
Can I tell the story with footage I can film myself? How can I use footage and audio creatively to tell my story.
What do I need to tell the story, what expenses might be involved.
What resources are available to me? Online etc. Does anyone have archive material that he/she would be willing to share with me.
Who might be willing to help with the film? Are there any organisations or individuals who might be interested in, and support my film and how can I get them involved?
Who do I know who might be willing to work with me on the film? How reliable is that person and what are my expectations of him/her?
What are your plans beyond The Spider’s Web?
For the past year I’ve been working on a documentary titled The End of Democracy with John Christensen, it is a documentary about market fundamentalism.
I’m also working on a documentary about Britain and torture, essentially it is the story of how Britain developed ever more sophisticated ways of torturing in order to preserve its public image.
Find out more about Michael Oswald is up to on his Patreon page.