The Root of All Evil

Cassius Michael Kim, whose new documentary Man on the Run is streaming now, on how witnessing poverty worldwide has shaped his work.

It began in an orphanage in Port-au-Prince. As we were given a tour of the facilities by the pastor in charge of operations, waves of children enveloped our small crew with desperate attention and pleas for recognition. Some of these children weren’t even orphans, but had been left with the orphanage by parents who couldn’t afford to raise them. It was a stark sign of the deleterious effects of poverty on a broken society. That evening, a fundraiser organized by the country’s then-president was held at the same hotel where our crew was staying — further reinforcing the vast divide between rich and poor. As the people in power enjoyed their cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, it was impossible not to think of the country’s next generation rotting away in small rooms with no amenities, oftentimes a dozen or more to a room.

Cassius MIchael Kim’s shot of children at an orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

A few years later, on a different assignment with a different crew, we explored the Tsingy Rouge geological structures in northern Madagascar. While the ethereal rock formations and canyons were a sight to behold, it was also apparent that the lack of governmental support and infrastructure had left the area’s people without many options. What should have been a massive natural attraction filled with tourists was mostly deserted; the nearby village was populated with children spending their days entertaining each other instead of attending school — education was a luxury not afforded these people. I observed one lonely young girl reading a well-worn French novel while the other children ran circles around us, curious about the unfamiliar technology we carried. Their parents were nowhere to be found. Later on, as we traveled to Iavoloha Palace outside of Antanarivo to interview the then-president of Madagascar, it was impossible not to contrast the opulence and luxury of the grounds to the massive poverty experienced by most of the country’s people.

Cassius Michael Kim and his crew filming at Tsingu Rouge in Madagascar.

Malaysia is not Haiti, nor is it Madagascar. But on a larger scale, it is a country that juxtaposes poverty and wealth side by side, like so many other broken places. But after decades of corruption and dynastic hoarding of wealth led to there being shanty towns lurking in the shadows of the gleaming Petronas Towers, Malaysia finally had its dirty laundry aired to the public. Intrepid journalists, determined law enforcement officials and brave opposition politicians combined to reveal the shady underpinnings of the 1 Malaysia Berhad Development (1MDB) fund. The fund functionally existed as a sieve through which corrupt individuals, led by the fugitive-in-hiding Jho Low, but also including the former Prime Minister Najib Razak, stole upwards of $4.5 billion from Malaysian taxpayers.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak being interviewed for Cassius Michael Kim’s Man on the Run.

The money was then used by Low and Razak, and their co-conspirators, to finance a life of unlimited luxury. Hundreds of thousands of dollars per night were paid to Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx and Paris Hilton, among others, to party with Low and his cronies in places like Las Vegas, Aspen and Saint-Tropez. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on diamonds and Birkin bags for Najib Razak’s wife, the infamous Rosmah Mansor — who puts Imelda Marcos’ shoe obsession to shame. Fund money was used to buy a Bombardier private jet and a $250 million super-luxury ice-class yacht named the Equanimity and, ironically, to finance the Martin Scorsese film about greed and corruption, The Wolf of Wall Street.

A still of a Malaysian fishing village from Man on the Run.

While making my new documentary on Jho Low and 1MDB, Man on the Run, it was impossible not to seethe as my crew and I were confronted by the horrific gap between rich and poor in Malaysia. As we navigated a tiny fishing village built on stilts in Penang province, where stoic fishermen wordlessly hand-knit their fishing lines while tiny kittens played in the meager surroundings, Najib Razak’s handlers were simultaneously texting me, again and again, asking if we could meet them at their fourth campaign stop of the day, where people who didn’t know better (or didn’t care) would venerate this convicted criminal as a savior of the Malaysian working class. Faux populism in action, indeed.

From my years of international reporting, I’ve come to see the world not just as the beautiful and wondrous place it often is, but also as a collection of individual states that were each a battleground where those who have waged an unrelenting war against those without. And there was no low that couldn’t be reached in these never-ending wars, which started thousands of years before any of us were born, and will rage for thousands of years into the future. Unless the dream of a more just and equitable society can somehow come to be, in some feverish utopian dreamscape.

Director Cassius Michael Kim shooting Man on the Run on location in Malaysia.

That was why we made Man on the Run – because criminals who marginalize their own people’s present and future to live some fantasy life of opulent wealth, while others starve, do not deserve to be forgotten, unseen and unheard. Because someone like Jho Low doesn’t deserve to live the rest of his days in hiding, escaping and perverting justice. Because Najib Razak had to answer for the betrayal of his people, who now lay in cowed uncertainty over the purported actions of their favored Bossku, which were in diametrical opposition to the flowery words Najib had campaigned on for years.

Without accountability, there can be no closure. Without closure, we cannot move forward. Without learning why these types of financial scandals occur and recur in our world, we will never be able to prevent them. I hope that Man on the Run can be one small stepping stone toward raising awareness about what happens, and what is at stake.

Cassius Michael Kim’s new documentary about 1MDB and Jho Low, Man on the Run, is now streaming on Netflix. Kim is a director, producer, and writer who helped create the CNN Original Series, The Wonder List with Bill Weir, directing and producing half of the show’s twenty documentary hours from locations as diverse as Vanuatu, Madagascar, and Egypt. Prior to joining CNN, Cassius worked at ABC News. He began his career at the independent film production company This is That. Most recently, Kim produced and filmed Stockton On My Mind, about Mayor Michael Tubbs Jr. and the city of Stockton, CA, which was nominated in the category of Outstanding Current Affairs Documentary for the 2021 News & Documentary Emmy® Awards.