2021 | Dir. Sheona McDonald | 78 minutes
Reviewed by Kathleen Gallagher
This documentary, Dead Man’s Switch, opens on a mystery. A young cryptocurrency exchange CEO dies on his honeymoon in India, sparking an international scandal. Gerald Cotten was the co-founder of Quadriga, Canada’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, which traded millions of dollars. In December 2018, Cotten died of Crohn’s disease. One month later, his wife, Jennifer Robertson, wrote a statement about his death on the webpage. There was $215 million of investors’ money that was inaccessible to anyone.
Under normal circumstances, there is a failsafe in place. If the software operator is impaired there is a default setting known as a “dead man’s switch.” It allows others to activate the software or, in this case, the password to the online safe. This was never put in place. No one had the password to his accounts. The money was either missing or locked up in a digital safe.
Crypto traders throughout the country were panicking. They could not access their money. They were determined to hold someone accountable and unlock their funds. Several investigations started over social media. Meanwhile, journalists start digging into Cotten’s questionable past and shady business partner Michael Patryn.
Sheona McDonald’s documentary outlines the events with interviews from journalists, crypto experts, crypto traders, and amateur detectives. Every person has a different theory and a different perspective. However, the story remains a mystery, including Cotten’s death. It is a thriller that explores every angle. Unfortunately, McDonald had limited access to Cotten’s inner circle. So, the players are left to speculate, and the audience is left uncertain of the truth.
McDonald exposed a system supported by traders who distrust the big banks and wanted to make money fast. This new and unregulated system left the door open for predators to pounce. There was no regulatory compliance to keep everyone in check. Cotten and Patryn took advantage of this system and scammed so many people anxious to make money fast.
McDonald paced the film beautifully. She opens on a hook and allows the story to unfold and unravel. The technical information is explained perfectly in the documentary. This story is easy to follow, even if you have very little knowledge of cryptocurrency. McDonald uses animation effectively to explain theories and technical information. The other graphics offer a digital aesthetic that sets the tone perfectly.
However, the re-enactments in the film at times add nothing to the story. It would have been more interesting to explore the psychology of Cotten’s personality. A charming, friendly person gains a community’s trust and then takes advantage of them. It is a story told over and over again. Regardless of the circumstances, there is always a person looking for an opportunity to exploit others for personal gain. It would have been impactful to explore how he got to that point.
Dead Man’s Shift is a well-structured film. It explores the state of cryptocurrency, antiestablishment communities, and capitalist greed. Cryptocurrency is still in its infancy. Its outcome is still unclear. It is a relevant topic that deserves our attention. McDonald evenly presents all the information and allows the audience to form their own opinion.