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Dead Man's Switch: A Crypto Mystery - Documentary Review (Melbourne Documentary Film Festival 2021)

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by Nicholas Gordon (subscribe)
Freelance writer based in Sydney.
Event: -
A sudden death leaves a crypto conundrum
The rise of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies has been the surprising financial story of the past decade. Melding tech with finance, and shunning traditional banks and regulators, crypto has attracted everyone from get-rich-quick dreamers to staid investors. But thanks to the financial frontier mentality that drives it, crypto has also drawn its fair share of shady characters. Documentary Dead Man's Switch tells the bewildering story of one such player, a young crypto entrepreneur whose sudden death left a tangled web of missing money.

The man was Gerald Cotten and he was the founder of QuadrigaCX, which became Canada's largest crypto exchange. Cotten was hailed as a great success, building a large and successful platform from scratch. Cotten lived the life, piloting planes in his spare time, amassing a large asset portfolio and even funding an orphanage in India.

In 2018, the recently married Cotten went to India. It was for his honeymoon and to open the orphanage his wealth had funded. But after 25 hours in India, Cotten was dead, apparently due to Crohn's disease. Cotten took to his grave passwords that unlocked several hundred million dollars in cryptocurrency held by QuadrigaCX. The money, owned by crypto investors, was seemingly now inaccessible - like a safe where the key's been thrown away. The timing and circumstances of Cotten's death was also a bit fishy, coinciding with a dramatic fall in the value of crypto and indications that QuadrigaCX was teetering on the edge of collapse.

Conspiracy theories flourished. Some said Cotten faked his own death and escaped with the missing millions. The story is complicated and filmmaker Sheona McDonald enlists investigative journalists, crypto insiders and disgruntled investors to take up the narrative. And they do a good job. We hear a journalist relating travelling to India to search for proof of Cotten's death. We follow a crypto investor as she tries to unravel where the money went. We learn of investors who bet heavily on crypto with QuadrigaCX and will be lucky to ever come away with anything.

It's not long after everyone starts investigating that Cotten's life and work take on a new hue. What starts as a high-tech thriller eventually turns into an old-fashioned tale of deception. Yet a hint of ambiguity remains - there is even talk of exhuming Cotten's body to prove he actually died. It's a wild and woolly story and Dead Man's Switch tells it in a compelling manner.

Dead Man's Switch: A Crypto Mystery is screening online as part of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival 2021. The film will be available to stream throughout July. Find more information on the festival's official website.
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Why? For the missing millions
When: Screening online until July 31
Where: Online
Cost: Various packages available
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