Tuesday, July 27, 2010


“B” is for “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 a bribe – even if you have no choice in the matter?

Let’s go back a few decades. Ah, the joys of travel. 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…

Here’s a group of today’s film-makers, always ready to head off into the wild blue yonder for some foreign assignment, hoping there’ll be the right kind of van or light truck available for rental there that will hold all their gear.

Because even in these digital days, most professional film people still use film. Back in my day, and it’s true today, professional movies were made with large, heavy film cameras, not tiny digital devices like today’s camcorders, some small as a pack of cigarettes (or even smaller).

And we also had to have with us a number of cases loaded with unexposed 35mm wide-screen color film, 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 two-word 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 that I had come to pick up my equipment. I handed him official-looking document. He stamped it with official-looking stamp and gave it to official-looking flunky. Flunky wheeled in the equipment.
“All is in order,” he said. “Come back Tuesday and you can have it.”
“Tuesday!” I cried. “This is Friday! The equipment is right there! You can’t let me have it?”
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 days running up the expense account. I had hoped to hire people and have the entire sequence, some of 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 – money as in payoff, gratuity, tip, baksheesh or, to come right out with it, bribe.
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 film assignments in various parts of the world, 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 bring 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.
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?


Tinsie said...

I have to say, I've never had to pay a bribe and I'm very thankful for this, as I'm not sure I'd be able to maintain the high ground (so to speak) if I were faced with situations similar to what you're describing.

Other than that, let me say I loved this phrase: "The production schedule was pretty well shot and I hadn’t even started." LOL :-)))

ds said...

Sounds like you were in a Marx Brothers Movie. I'm with Tinsie: that line about the production schedule is classic!

Gramma Ann said...

I live a pretty sheltered life, never had to pay a bribe, and am so glad. It sounds like you led an exciting life.

Fred Miller said...

No, but I've gotten several people fired or disciplined for trying suggest a bribe. Once in a while, as a truck driver, I would find myself in a seedy-looking warehouse. The receiving clerk would say he couldn't unload my truck for several hours, but it was clear that money would speed things up. I always went to the foreman (broke up a staff meeting once) and asked whether it was necessary to pay the unloaders. Oh, that made people mad! But I'm rather a large person with an athletic build, so I was never threatened by the seedy clerks. I did see a clerk punch a hole in the receiving office door instead of me. I cherish that memory. On the other hand, I won't try to be as assertive in Africa if I ever go there.


Bee and Rose said...

Never had to pay a bribe...but I'm definitely not above bribing my kids to get stuff done around here!

(great post!)

photowannabe said...

Small time bribes like palming money to get seats close to the stage at dinner shows.
Sometimes "tipping" slot hosts so one can find the best paying machines.
Most of our overseas travel has been done with groups. I'm not sure what the leader had to do to get us where we wanted to go.

Mara said...

I've never had to pay myself, but when the Berlin wall was still up and running, a sixpack of beer would speed up the proceedings considerably. Or so I was told by my colleagues. And I know of one trip a few colleagues did, where the boss actually gave them some extra money for so-called 'security', but basically just bribery! As long as there was a receipt involved...

Roger Owen Green said...

i do believe that a bribe you HAVE to pay is called extortion; also illegal in most jurisdictions; doesn't mean it doesn't happen, even officially.


Tumblewords: said...

Never paid a bribe, but I've overnighted in a foreign jail cell once for 'talking back' to the arresting officer. Have had my luggage pilfered and been strip searched time after time. Guess I'd have been happier if I'd known enough to offer a baksheesh.

Misfit in Paradise said...

I have never had to offer a bribe (unless you count the time I gave the road crew fresh baked cookies for them to cut down a dead tree). I'm sure it may have eased my situation a few times though. And I am fascinated that Mara could get receipts for the bribes they offered!

Donna - ABC Wednesday

Berowne said...

Thaks to Tinsie, ds, Gramma Ann, Fred Miller and Bee and Rose for their interesting comments.

Berowne said...

photowannabe: "Sometimes "tipping" slot hosts so one can find the best paying machines."
Does that ever work?

Berowne said...

Mara: "...basically just bribery! As long as there was a receipt involved."
I don't think I could ever have gotten a receipt for a bribe. The "bribee" would have been putting his job on the line for no good reason.

LisaF said...

The Mexican highway patrol are renown for tourist extortion. Drive a rental car on the highway running along the Caribbean side between Cancun and Playa del Carmen at 1am and expect to be stopped for "speeding." Yes, it happened to us, even though my husband was 5 under the speed limit. No matter. $50 cash would make the ticket go away, so we scraped together the money and continued back to the resort...not to leave it again.

R. Burnett Baker said...

Are you kidding? During three years in the Middle East and a decade in East and South East Asia did I ever have to pay a bri....baksheesh?

Oh hell no. LOL In the 70's if I wanted a six month visa rather than 2 weeks for Singapore, a bottle of expensive amber liquid got that stamp from a friend of a friend who worked in immigration. Saved me thousands in airfare to leave and come back into the country every two weeks!

Bravo Baksheesh!


sheri said...

no, never been in a place where i had to pay a bribe, but reading through your post was one fantastic ride, berowyne!! i simply can't begin to imagine the wonderful life you've lived but i sure hope to hear more about your exploits :)

Berowne said...

sheri: "i sure hope to hear more about your exploits."
H'mm. Some of them better left undiscussed. :-)

chiccoreal said...

Dear Berowne: Wow! The payola mongers in places! The corruption! Guess Interpol was left in the dark with the film canisters. Nobody in Executive ever tried to find away around this conundrum? Bribes seem to happen in places where slackery is the rule not the exception. It can happen wherever big brother isnt watching or if big brother is watching they are not doing much. My personal experience with a bribe? Probably kids trying to get me to buy them cigarettes of which I promptly said "no way Jose". Sometimes the kids are the ones who do the "work" for the adults as their cases are dismissed (usually) with no records (usually). The adults tend to capitalize on this aspect unfortunately. Cure for Bribes? The second oldest profession?

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