The Amazing Story of the Film-Tax Fraudsters

Slate's Culture Blog
March 27 2013 4:56 PM

The Incredible Story of the Film-Tax Fraudsters

landscapeoflies

In the 2011 British thriller A Landscape of Lies, a Gulf War veteran returns to civilian life only to have his commanding officer and closest confidant killed in an accidental mugging. In an effort to investigate the murder, the vet becomes wrapped up in an intricate plot involving cheating spouses and a troubled therapist. Comprised of a mostly B-list cast, the thriller would have drifted into relative obscurity except for one unusual production detail: It was all a scam.

A few years ago five scammers, including property developer Bashar Al-Issa and actress Aoife Madden, were arrested for collecting millions of dollars off a proposed movie they never intended to make. According to the Daily Mail, the original project, under the very similar title A Landscape of Lives (note the ‘v’), was to “star” such big names as Jeremy Irons, with a supposed budget of 20 million pounds. The plan was to claim the money by way of a goods and services tax regulated by the British Film Commission. By creating fake receipts and documentation, the group collected almost 2 million pounds from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (Britain’s tax agency) over the course of a year before officials became suspicious. In April 2011, the group was arrested for tax fraud.

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That might have been the end of the story, which to that point was sort of a twisted, money-grubbing variation on the CIA’s faux-fantasy film Argo. But Al-Issa and his cohorts, determined to evade prosecution, concocted yet another scheme: They changed the name of the “film” to the rather ironic A Landscape of Lies, and cobbled together an actual (and very cheap) movie to show that they were not, in fact, scammers. A-lister Jeremy Irons was now out—he had never really been in, obviously—and TV anchor Andrea McLean was in, making her feature film debut. Apparently, everyone involved in the actual production process—which was written, cast, and shot in just four months—was completely in the dark as to the scam behind the movie. Director Paul Knight says that everyone on set assumed they were just “making a low-budget thriller.”

The movie went straight to DVD—and even won an award at the 2012 Las Vegas Film Festival. But British officials convicted the group anyway. On Monday, Al-Issa was sentenced to six and a half years, while Madden and their three co-conspirators all received sentences between three and five years each. And while the brains behind A Landscape of Lies may not be hailed as heroes someday the way the people behind Argo have been, the producers can at least lay claim to one historical footnote: They’re the first people ever to be prosecuted by Britain’s tax agency for film-tax fraud

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.