Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bribes

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?

19 comments:

Derrick said...

Hello there and thanks for visiting my blog. Glad you enjoyed the Sacre Coeur and National Poetry Day posts. As for Shakespeare, perhaps he was feeling a little morbid at the time; thinking of the fragility of life in Elizabethan times. I don't really know how old he was at the time but thought he might be more in his thirties, which would be fast approaching middle age! Either way, it produced beautiful poetry.

As for your customs experiences, I'm glad to say that I've never encountered such circumstances. Only once have I had to open my suitcase and there was nothing to declare! But I did have to deal with customs in the middle east and never once did they so much as hint at 'a little something'. They just levied the dues and we paid up.

Berowne said...

>> I don't really know how old he was at the time but thought he might be more in his thirties.<<

According to the best scholars I've read on this topic, Shakespeare began writing sonnets when he was 19 and wrote most of them in his 20s.

They add something interesting, however. He kept -- just as it seemed he did with the plays -- "revising and polishing" them for years.

The sonnets, as I'm sure you know, were a fascinating phenomenon. They were almost a sort of private diary; they were not written to be published. There were a lot of sonneteers in Will's day, most of them young, and it was the custom, the style, to write of age and death. Will's contemporary, Richard Barnfield, was all of 20 when he wrote: "Winter hath snow'd upon my hoary head..." and another passionate youth, Samuel Daniel, wrote: "Whilst age upon my wasted body steals..."

Leslie Hotson: "For it is of course only to the young man, while his glands are shouting to him, that it seems interesting or attractive to advertise his weary life and to proclaim that he totters on the brink of the grave."

It would appear that Our Will was just writing in that style.

Thanks for visiting my blog; I'll stay in touch.

Berowne said...

>>As for your customs experiences, I'm glad to say that I've never encountered such circumstances. <<

Yes, as I mentioned in my post, there's a clear difference between an individual entering a country and going through customs and someone involved in a commercial operation who has to get a number of cases of expensive equipment through.
Of course, my experiences with this sort of thing were some decades ago; it's possible such things don't happen any more -- the world has cleaned up its act.
But I doubt it. My guess is that if I traveled with the same equipment today and visited the same countries I visited then, there would be somebody somewhere who would ask for "a little something." :-)

Dedene said...

Very interesting! I've travelled extensively over the years too. One of the weirdest customs agents was one in L.A.X. where he questioned me for 2 hours about what I did for business. He was suspicious because I had visa and stamps from all over Asia, plus I was just coming back to the U.S. from Mexico.
Now, why on earth was he suspicious?

French officials lived on bakish for centuries. I'm not sure now if they'd still be on the take.

Berowne said...

>>"He was suspicious because I had visa and stamps from all over Asia, plus I was just coming back to the U.S. from Mexico.
Now, why on earth was he suspicious?" <<

Maybe he had just seen the movie "Maria Full of Grace." (Just kidding.)

>>"French officials lived on bakish for centuries. I'm not sure now if they'd still be on the take." <<

Some day I must tell you of our adventures in Nice... :-)

French Fancy said...

I wonder if now film technicians hire from the companies in the country to which they have travelled. It does seem an awful bind to cart all that equipment with them and, as you've mentioned, the rigmarole at airports would get very tedious.

I'm waiting for a name dropping post about the films you've worked on - go on; I'm sure we'd all be very interested

Berowne said...

>>"I wonder if now film technicians hire from the companies in the country to which they have travelled." <<

Yes, when possible. I always tried to hire personnel in the country where I was working.

For example, I had the strenuous assignment of auditioning and hiring beautiful models in France and Germany for some of the films. Difficult work, but someone had to do it.

>>"It does seem an awful bind to cart all that equipment with them and, as you've mentioned, the rigmarole at airports would get very tedious." <<

Very true. But it was worth it. When you shoot the stuff yourself you want the equipment that you know and understand and have worked with for years. It was chancy and iffy to rent equipment -- and chancy and iffy are two words you want to avoid when shooting overseas.

<<"I'm waiting for a name dropping post about the films you've worked on - go on; I'm sure we'd all be very interested." <<

The wonderful thing about my films is that, if you missed one of them, you didn't miss much. :-)

willow said...

WT travels extensively and has some tall tales to tell. Too many for this comment box. One has to do with being mistaken for a member of the Russian mafia.

Interesting post and lots of food for thought on the issue of bribes.

Berowne said...

Willow, thanks for dropping by; I'm looking forward to checking out the festivities on the 13th.

I actually entered a similar contest a year or so ago and won the door prize.

Which was sort of too bad because I already had a door. :-)

Pearl said...

You know, I honestly don't think I've ever paid a bribe, at least not in the same sense. I've bought drinks, even dinner, to either open or shut someone's mouth, but that's not really the same thing, is it?

:-)

Pearl

Berowne said...

>>"I've bought drinks, even dinner, to either open or shut someone's mouth, but that's not really the same thing, is it?"<<

Good point. But if you felt you had no choice when it came to buying that dinner, then I guess it was a sort of bribe.

Madame DeFarge said...

I don't think I've ever paid a bribe and would be rather shocked to be asked for one, but if it was the 'norm' then I suppose that I would have to. Reluctantly, but out of necessity.

Berowne said...

>>"Reluctantly, but out of necessity."<<

Right. That's exactly how I felt about it.

Little Ms Blogger said...

I haven't officially paid a bribe, but like Pearl, I've done the same.

However, I'm not naive in thinking this doesn't happen. If I thought it didn't it would only be because I just came off my desert island.

Berowne said...

Thanks for visiting my blog, Little Ms B. I hope you will never be placed in a position where you have to bribe someone because you have no other choice.

willow said...

I'm glad you decided to forget about Rue and stay to teach me the Turkey Trot. I haven't enjoyed myself so much in a long time. Who knew you were quite the dancer?

Berowne said...

"Who knew you were quite the dancer?"

Well, I don't like to brag, but Adele -- Fred's sister -- and I danced as a couple for a few years and have won trophies in some local dance contests. (No cash, however.)

"...stay to teach me the Turkey Trot."

H'mm, I don't know about that. The Turkey Trot requires great skill and almost superhuman athleticism. It involves years of intense training, along with an ability to understand the deep psychological need of turkeys to, er, trot.

Jeanne said...

I've paid many a bribe over the years, but only to children for good behavior.

And I'd gladly do it all over again.

Berowne said...

Old joke. Dad: "Why should I give you money for good behavior; when I was your age I was good for nothing!"

 
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