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"As long as Hollywood continues to work with them, they will retain an air of invincibility here — it sends a signal. It tells people that nobody cares and they will just get away with it," says a Malaysian producer.
As mounting allegations of corruption continue to engulf The Wolf of Wall Street producer Red Granite, figures from the Malaysian film industry have a message for the company's Hollywood collaborators: Please, stop.
The morning after Woody Allen's Cafe Society opened the Cannes Film Festival Wednesday, The Wall Street Journalpublished the latest in a series of reports implicating Red Granite in an alleged corruption scandal of historic proportions. As much as $7 billion is estimated to have gone missing from a state fund set up in 2009 to benefit the Malaysian people.
Founded by Riza Aziz, the stepson of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Red Granite is alleged to have received $238 million of siphoned state funds, some of which it then used to bankroll Martin Scorsese's Wolf, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
A globe-spanning FBI investigation into the alleged misappropriation is ongoing — as are Red Granite's glamorous film business activities. The company is stationed in Cannes aboard a rented luxury yacht named Indulgence of Poole, from which it has been holding sales meetings for its next film, Papillon, starring Charlie Hunnam.
Red Granite has said it is cooperating with all inquiries and "to its knowledge, none of the funding received by Red Granite was in any way irregular or illegitimate.”
The Hollywood Reporter reached out to several prominent figures from the Malaysia film community to get their thoughts on the Red Granite situation.
Prominent Malaysian filmmaker and political activist Hishamuddin Rais, speaking to THR by phone from Kuala Lumpur, said Hollywood directors and producers should "be more concerned" where the money invested in their films was coming from, saying there was a "process of money laundering" going on.
On May 16, Rais stood trial in Kuala Lumpur on sedition charges stemming from a speech he gave criticizing Malaysia's controversial 2013 elections, which restored Prime Minister Razak's right-wing Barisan Nasional party to power. Public discourse in Malaysia is closely monitored and controlled; the country ranks 148th of 182 countries — behind nations such as Afghanistan and Myanmar — in Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index.
"Having seen him rub shoulders with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio is exciting to some extent," said a veteran Malaysian film buyer in Cannes when asked about Aziz. "But we do ask where the hell he got his money. No one really knows yet what happened, but the links appear to be there and there are questions marks all over the place." (The individual requested not to be named; when THR asked whether such statements could jeopardize the individual's personal safety, the person replied: "Are you kidding me? If I shared [this news] on Facebook, it would probably go viral in Malaysia and I wouldn't be able to go home.")
Contacted by phone in Kuala Lumpur, an influential Malaysian producer urged Hollywood companies to consider what their ongoing cooperation with Red Granite means in the bigger picture.
"Instead of asking Malaysians how they feel about this news, I would like to ask film producers there how they feel about it," the producer said. "As long as Hollywood continues to work with them, they will retain an air of invincibility here — it sends a signal. It tells people that nobody cares and they will just get away with it."
Nurul Izzah, a sitting member of Malaysia's parliament and the daughter of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister, added: "I can’t believe Hollywood can justify and validate these ongoing allegations by shamelessly supporting [Red Granite], whether by investing in [their] movies or buying rights."
Red Granite's highest-profile collaborator to date, DiCaprio, has yet to publicly comment on the scandal. According to a source in Cannes (who didn't want to be named), Red Granite has told buyers privately that DiCaprio is attached to star in a forthcoming George Washington biopic, The General, which the company is developing. Red Granite has denied that he is involved.
Regardless, voices in Malaysia have a message for the star. "Before you go into any project, you must also, Mr. Leonardo DiCaprio, make sure you know where the money is coming from," Rais told THR on the eve of his trial.
"If he is speaking to the United Nations on global warming, he should also be speaking about [this], because global warming is interconnected with corruption in third-world countries," he added.
THR reached out to DiCaprio's publicist.
The full statement from Red Granite reads:
"Red Granite has received hundreds of millions of dollars in financings over the last six years from a variety of sources, including top-tier U.S. commercial and investment banks. During this time, Red Granite’s films have generated close to $1 billion in worldwide box office receipts. To its knowledge, none of the funding received by Red Granite was in any way irregular or illegitimate. Red Granite is cooperating fully with all inquiries and is confident that when the facts come out, it will be clear that neither Riza Aziz nor Red Granite has done anything wrong. In the meantime, Mr. Aziz and Red Granite will continue moving forward with exciting new projects."