Sometimes nonfiction cinema, just by virtue of its form, is riveting, for it can distill an incredible true story on screen. But The Kleptocrats – a new documentary that premiered on American channel Starz this Monday – goes a step further: it pursues the pursuer, folding one story on another, making the backstage action, in full-blown chaos, as compelling as the main story.
The movie follows a few investigative journalists (from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Hollywood Reporter) sniffing the trails of a huge financial scandal, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), involving then Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Complementing the nature of the scandal – marked by backdoor dealings and hushed conversations – the filmmakers, Sam Hobkinson and Havana Markin, display a similar economy of expression. The Kleptocrats opens with New York Times journalist Louise Story getting intrigued by a shell company buying a penthouse on the top floor of Time Warner Center, in New York. As Story explains her investigation – she began in 2013 – the camera plays the role of a companion, giving visuals to her words.
Quite soon, the documentary morphs into a ‘howdunnit’ of sorts. The movie spells out the main perpetrators right at the start – literally pinning their photographs on a soft board – and segues to find connections among them. Hobkinson and Markin revel in this intricate web, peeling one layer after the other. The first suspects are Jho Low, a Malaysian financier who became mysteriously rich; Riza Aziz, the co-founder of Red Granite, a film production company based in Los Angeles; and his partner, Joey McFarland, a “talent broker” from Kentucky.
None of them, from their histories, were known for remarkable wealth, let alone enough to produce a Hollywood movie, in 2013, nominated for five Academy Awards. A movie that “nobody wanted to touch”. A movie about, according to its lead, “hedonism, debauchery, and excess” – “an adult American epic about our state of culture”. A movie about money laundering, defrauding gullible citizens and duping law enforcement. That movie was The Wolf of Wall Street – why do you need fiction when you have life?
Hobkinson and Markin not just tell a compelling story but also manage to get access to some fascinating footage and, through sheer doggedness, capture stunning revelations: the several parties thrown by Low, whose guest list – Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Britney Spears, Jamie Foxx, Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, among several others – reads like a “movie credits scroll” (his birthday bash in particular, reportedly costing “$100 million”, was “the most expensive party Las Vegas” had “ever seen”); a meeting between Razak and Low in a plush New York hotel; a phone conversation between a Hollywood Reporter journalist and De Niro (whose son, Raphael, had met Low for a “property sale”), which ends with the actor shouting, “I don’t care whether my name is associated. Get the fuck outta here. Goodbye.”
The documentary, though, isn’t just shock and pomp. Like any serious piece of nonfiction, The Kleptocrats hovers over the macro, dives into the micro, showing the true aftermaths of the scandal: the squashing of individual and institutional liberties (the Attorney General, investigating Razak, is sacked; the leaders of opposition parties are threatened; so are the cartoonists), but equally important, also documents the plight of ordinary Malaysians, whose hard-earned money was treated as loose change by Razak, Low and their cohorts. One of the many affecting scenes involve the camera first gazing, and then panning, the modest living quarters of Malaysian working class – the contrast is striking and shameful.
In another scene, using documents obtained from the US Department of Justice’s civil forfeiture complaints, a Malaysian opposition leader, Tony Pua, says that with the “1MDB money they bought a 22-carat, $27 million diamond necklace for the wife of the Prime Minister”. Pua takes out his phone, does some math, and gives context: that necklace alone could finance 3,333 Malaysian teachers in a year. Even that amount is a patch on the total money swindled: nearly $700 million.
Like The Wolf of Wall Street, The Kleptocrats doesn’t end on an easy, comforting note. Sure, the scandal resulted in some arrests and steep penalties, but none of the accused – neither Razak or his wife nor Low or his associates – admitted to any wrongdoing (let alone expressed remorse). Low, in fact, has been a fugitive for quite some time and his lawyers have sent threatening letters to distributors and platforms asking them to remove the documentary from their catalogues.
Abysmal greed; authoritarianism; helpless, hapless citizens; a Hollywood biopic; and the rich and famous dancing around the dubious flame of wealth like drugged fireflies – The Kleptocrats unfolds like a dystopia that has come to life a little too soon.