Brian McKenna explores The Secret World of Gold

MONTREAL - Brian McKenna didn’t predict the recent nosedive in gold prices, but he knows someone who did.

“Andy sent me an email early Friday morning,” recounted the Montreal director. “He said, ‘There’s a big event happening. Someone’s dumping 500 tons of gold into the market.’ That ended up driving the price down by $78 an ounce. And 500 tons is 16 million ounces — we’re talking about a serious intervention here. Who’s got that kind of money?”

“Andy” is Andrew Maguire, a key source in McKenna’s fascinating new film The Secret World of Gold, which premières Thursday at 9 p.m. on CBC-TV. The hour-long documentary plunges into the dramatically rich narrative of gold, unveiling some shocking facts along the way.

“I was just going to do a history piece, until I stumbled over a whistleblower,” McKenna said.

A veteran gold and silver trader, Maguire denounces the shady tactics of the industry, breaking down the ways in which precious metal prices are manipulated using insider trading.

“He was tremendous,” McKenna said. “It took me eight months to persuade him to come on camera, but I was willing to wait. I knew he was critical to the film. It turns out he was burned by the BBC. He spent seven months showing them everything, going online and showing them the way things worked. Then after all that, they said, ‘The show’s been killed.’

“Word on the street is that Tony Blair, who is on a retainer to JPMorgan for $2 million a year, made a call (and the story was dropped). Did that happen? I don’t know. It’s an opinion that people hold; it doesn’t make it so. But something made the BBC stop an important investigation into which they had probably invested three-quarters of a million dollars.”

McKenna’s film also explores the secretive smuggling of European gold reserves during the Second World War, and how gold has gone from a reliable physical currency to an abstract concept, bought and sold in the blink of an eye on the stock market, taking on all the baggage of modern global finance in the process.

An investigative journalist and historian, McKenna estimates he has made 100 films over his career, including many provocative documentaries on war and politics. The topic of gold presented itself to him in the form of a rumour.

“A long time ago, I heard a story which I wasn’t sure was true,” he said, “about all this gold coming to the Sun Life Building’s vaults, far below the surface at the height of the Second World War. I thought, ‘That’s curious,’ but it turned out to be a critical moment in the war: if that gold had ended up at the bottom of the ocean, England wouldn’t have had the money to buy arms from the U.S., which was operating on a cash-and-carry basis, and fight off Hitler.”

Vast amounts of French and English gold were shipped to North America to avoid being claimed by the Nazis, McKenna reveals, with Montreal and Ottawa becoming important for storage. It’s but one example among millions of gold being moved, hidden, stolen, reclaimed and sunk to the bottom of the sea through the ages, making and breaking many a nation along the way.

Those expecting an escapist narrative about the enduring allure of one of the world’s oldest currencies don’t know McKenna. A founding producer of The Fifth Estate, he’s like the anti-Midas: he can’t help but dig up the dirt on anything he touches.

His 1992 CBC documentary The Valour and the Horror received five Gemini Awards, while sparking a CRTC investigation, a senate inquiry and a $500 million lawsuit by Air Force veterans, which was dismissed. All to say, the man is used to ruffling feathers. In keeping with tradition, The Secret World of Gold is far from a puff piece.

“It’s the toughest documentary I’ve ever made,” McKenna said. “It took over a year, and led me down so many corridors. Once you go down one corridor, two doors open, and you don’t know which one to take. This happened over and over. It’s virgin territory. No one has been down this path before, to report it.”

Though his film reveals amazing things about humanity’s conflicted relationship with gold, McKenna was most excited by the human story at its centre. Maguire may well have put his life on the line by speaking out, the director explained.

“We weren’t able to include it in the film, because it’s still a mystery, but it looks like somebody tried to kill him. Two days after he blew the whistle (to the Gold Anti-Trust Action Committee, in 2010), out of nowhere a van rammed and almost demolished his car. And there was almost no investigation.

“Andrew Maguire standing up as a gold and silver trader and saying, ‘This is wrong’ — that’s the kind of courage I like to capture in my documentaries. Whether it’s people who (survived) Auschwitz, who escaped and lived to tell their story, or veterans who thought bombing women and children in the Second World War was not the best strategy, and stood by me when all hell broke loose.

“Celebrating heroes — I like to do that.”

The Secret World of Gold airs Thursday, April 18 at 9 p.m. on CBC-TV.

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