Among the films on view at this year’s Gimli Film Festival, Dead Man’s Switch feels unique… yet familiar.
For classic film buffs, there is a scent of Citizen Kane in its premise: An investigation into the life of a mysterious, brash and extremely wealthy entrepreneur, whose death leaves a trove of tantalizing, unexplained mysteries.
But this story is all too real. The film by Vancouver-based documentarian Sheona McDonald examines the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of Canadian CEO Gerald Cotten, who died at the age of 30 in India, apparently as a result of Crohn’s disease.
His death might not have been an especially big story if not for the fact his cryptocurrency exchange, QuadrigaCX, suddenly lost $215 million, which seemed to vanish, leaving 115,000 creditors facing losses that ranged from decimating to devastating.
Adding to the suspicious circumstances, his widow, Jennifer Robertson, did not announce his death — via a post on the Quadrigaexchange website — until a full month later.
This was not the story McDonald expected to cover. One full year before Cotten’s death, McDonald had pitched a broadcaster on a film about cryptocurrency in an effort to explain the mysterious new phenomenon, an alternative to conventional banking in which money is converted to digitized "coins," controlled by a decentralized ledger.
After receiving some development money, McDonald was ready to throw in the towel on the subject after a year, until Cotten’s death gave her a human focus.
"I couldn’t find anything interesting that would be cohesive enough that would tell a story about cryptocurrency," she says.
Cotten’s story almost gave her too much material, she says, factoring in the fact the film would require high tech graphics, re-enactments, and interviews with people all over the continent... during a pandemic.
"It was definitely a question of whether it would be too much to tie it all together," she says. "How much do we explain about cryptocurrency? What do people need to know? What’s too much? When do your eyes start to roll back in your head? It was definitely a juggle of all those elements."
The central mystery, she says, may never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction.
"There are people that don’t think (Cotten) is dead," she says. "Personally I do think he’s dead because I don’t think his wife would’ve been bold enough to (transport) somebody else’s body internationally. But who knows?"
The resulting film nevertheless has the feel of a cautionary tale.
"Maybe it’s a ‘buyer beware’ story," McDonald says, adding the contemporary state of high tech finance can be challenging.
"I have money sitting on PayPal, coming in and going out and I don’t know who owns PayPal! I haven’t looked into the veracity of that organization," she says. "But I assume, because other people trust it, this company that’s been around for years is probably OK."
Crypto, she acknowledges, is a different ballgame, as the story of QuadrigaCX painfully demonstrates.
"How that company was able to fly without any oversight is kind of remarkable in this day and age," she says. "It was the lack of regulation that allowed it to happen. They really did find a grey spot in the middle of it all."
McDonald says she hopes people come away from the film with a healthy skepticism.
"There really is I think a moral tale: Be careful where you put your money. Don’t risk what you can’t afford to lose," she says.
"And if it’s too good to be true, than it probably is," she says. "Those are old sayings, but I think they really do apply here."
Tickets for GFF On Demand are on sale at gimlifilm.com. A regular pass for 20 festival screenings is $70. Individual screening tickets are $8.
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.