We’ve been reading a lot about the bribing of politicians lately; seems to be a lot of it going on. And not just in Chicago.
They tell me that bribery is a crime. What I don’t understand is this: if it’s a crime to solicit, to ask for or demand, a bribe, is it also a crime to pay the bribe – even if you have no choice in the matter?
Let’s go back a few years. I had a great job at the time, traveling around the world making motion pictures for major film companies and business organizations. I loved it. To be given interesting, challenging assignments, to stay in the best hotels, all expenses paid by happy, smiling clients and sponsors – surely there wasn’t a better way to earn a living.
It was great, but there was a fly in the vichyssoise. To get in to these various countries you had to deal with the local bureaucracy and that meant, among other things, you had to go through customs.
For the tourist in those days, going through customs overseas was a simple process. The American passport, the sincere smile, and you usually won yourself the little chalk mark on your luggage that showed you had passed the test and were allowed in the country.
Ah, but when you tried to waltz through with seven or eight cases of motion picture and sound equipment, which is the way I used to travel…
It was then a fairly common sight in foreign airports: groups of sweating, worried-looking men and women struggling to load large, shiny metal cases into the micro-Renault or mini-Fiat or whatever other transportation was all that was available for rental at that particular airport.
They were easily identifiable as film-makers – back when professional movies were made with film cameras, not tiny digital devices like today’s camcorders – because that meant lugging large, expensive, sensitive equipment all around the world.
And they also had to have with them a number of cases loaded with 35mm wide-screen color negative, which was needed for the production of theatrical-distribution motion pictures.
In addition to all this, there was that difficulty I mentioned earlier: going through customs.
Whether it was the douane or the zoll, or whatever other term that was employed in the local language, you had to pass through customs to get into the country, and the wonderful thing about customs was that you never knew what would happen.
There were always little men in weird uniforms waiting at the airport to shake you up.
The customs service, in any nation you cared to name, was an official organization of considerable importance. It often came complete with some sort of Captain Midnight uniform for the personnel, along with a little pennant to hang up on the wall which usually featured a Latin phrase.
I offer the following examples. First, this happened in a German-speaking country. “Guten Morgen,” I said. I speak fluent German, as long as it stays on this level. “Guten Morgen,” replied the customs officer, who you would have sworn was Sig Rumann in an old Marx Brothers movie. He had a broad smile. Customs officials smile a lot, when they know they’ve got you.
I explained, at a somewhat slower pace due to the dismaying intricacies of the language, that I had come to pick up my cases of equipment. I handed him official-looking document. He stamped it with official-looking stamp and gave it to official-looking flunky. Flunky wheeled in equipment.
“All is in order,” he said. “Come back Tuesday and you can have it.”
“Tuesday!” I cried. “This is Friday!”
Another broad smile. “The man who must sign has left, since it is late Friday afternoon. He does not work Saturday or Sunday. Monday, of course, is a national holiday. Come back Tuesday and you can pick it up.”
So I went to the hotel and spent four days running up the expense account. I had hoped to hire people and have the entire sequence, the most important scenes in the movie, completed in a week. The production schedule was pretty well shot and I hadn’t even started.
But the truth is, the problem usually had to do with money.
In a number of countries, there was a routine you had to go through, and it was often pretty much the same: one of the men would say that everything was in order but there was just one thing: a little something for the customs officer.
The request was never a surprise. In my years of handling various film assignments in all the European countries, throughout the Far East, the Middle East, South America, etc., I had frequently been asked for “a little something.”
In Latin America they call it “la mordida,” the bite. In Italy, it’s “la bustarella,” the little envelope. In West Africa it’s known as “a bit of dash.”
And what did I do about it, when they put this mordida on me? I went along. I handed over the money. Fighting City Hall was tough enough back home, but in a foreign land an angry customs official could easily “lose” a case or two of expensive camera gear.
Or a few handfuls of sand thrown into the cases was all that it would have taken to have brought the entire expedition to a grinding halt.
The question I’m wondering about today is, if this was extortion, a crime, was I also committing a crime by paying the money? It’s worth mentioning that the sums in question were distinctly minor-league: in those days something like forty dollars or so was the usual demand, easily covered by the production budget. But I never felt I had a choice, to pay or not to pay.
Well, if it was a crime, I suppose the statute of limitations has run out by now.
But again, it was the variety of the customs experience that made it challenging, and interesting. In Lisbon, no “bite” was asked for, but the officials spent what seemed to be an hour adding up figures for the customs charges, which included a number of additional impossible-to-understand assessments, and they then presented me with a bill for the total – which came to $9.38 in American money.
In Denmark they charged me nothing but before letting me through, the customs officer told me a joke. (All Danes knew of the success of Victor Borge in the States and would tell you a joke immediately upon learning you were an American.)
The other problem with customs was created by the film I brought with me. Surely the customs chaps should have realized that if you’re there to shoot a film you’ve got to have some film to shoot. But there was something about a sealed box, a box that could not be opened, that went against everything they believed in.
(If the film was unexposed, the average customs official would display an intense desire to open each roll and examine it to make sure it was unexposed.)
One sat down to play the customs game with trepidation; it was a game they usually won. As I mentioned, the customs services often would have an official Latin phrase on the pennant that was hanging on the wall behind them. They all seemed to have an unofficial one, too: “Omnes Chartas Tenemus.” (“We Hold All the Cards.”)
Ever find yourself in a similar situation, where you had to pay a bribe and felt you had no other choice?
1 year ago