New doc looks at the mysterious rise and fall of Vancouver cryptocurrency CEO Gerald Cotten

Filmmaker Sheona McDonald talks about Dead Man’s Switch: A Crypto Mystery, her new documentary about the mystery surrounding Gerald Cotten, the CEO of failed Vancouver-based cryptocurrency exchange QuadrigaCX

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Dead Man’s Switch: A Crypto Mystery


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When: Jan. 2

Where: CBC

Sheona McDonald has worked in the Canadian film and television industry as a writer, producer and director for over two decades. Her films include Candice, about pioneering adult film director Candida Royale, and A Short Essay on Men, about the definition of masculinity in today’s world and what it means to raise boys to be good men.

We talked to the local filmmaker about Dead Man’s Switch: A Crypto Mystery, her new documentary about the mystery surrounding Gerald Cotten, the CEO of failed Vancouver-based cryptocurrency exchange QuadrigaCX.

Q: One of your recent documentaries was Candice, about adult film pioneer Candida Royale. How did you become interested in her story?

A: I did a film called CBC Inside Her Sex about female sexuality and shame. But it originally started as women as the end-users of porn, so I was talking to erotic film stars. I met with her in New York. And afterwards, she was like, I’ve always wanted to find a filmmaker to tell my story. Will you do it? So I signed on and agreed to work with her. I finished it after she passed away in 2015. We’re both strong personalities, so it was an interesting time and a hard film to get made.

Q: Did you know what you were getting into?

A: Maybe. She was a fascinating, very smart, very motivated woman so I enjoyed spending time with her. It was tricky as it got near the end of her life. She wanted to control things and wasn’t accepting that she was going to die. She wanted to see all the footage. Which in hindsight I should have let her do. But the combination of no money and the creative power play made it challenging. Her story, what she was able to accomplish within the boundaries that she was pushing against, is amazing. She really took erotica mainstream.

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Q: It sounds like you came across the story behind Dead Man’s Switch by accident.

A: Yeah. I inadvertently pitched a film about cryptocurrency and then I was trying to figure out what film I was going to make. And I really was up against a wall because it’s a dense, bit boring, complicated, maybe academic, new concept. How do you put it in a film and make it interesting? So I was trying to backpedal my way out of it. Then when I saw the news about QuadrigaCX going into receivership and Gerry dying I knew immediately: “Oh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Q: You weren’t finished when the pandemic hit. How did that affect the film?

A: I’d done some interviews as part of development or early shooting. Then I went down to San Francisco in January 2020 and had shoots scheduled in New York, Toronto, and Montreal for April 2020. When the pandemic hit I said, Well, let’s at least see what we can do with what we have instead of pausing everybody. I would have had more material to sift through otherwise. I was curious as to what causes us to gamble, that sort of mentality that many people fall into around the FOMO and the obsessiveness when it comes to something like cryptocurrency: “Everybody’s making money and I want to make money too.” And you spend and spend and spend. You think you know more than everybody else, you think you’re the one who’s not going to get caught or you’re going to pick the right penny stock. I had some money on QuadrigaCX. That was the only game in town at the time and I had to figure out how it all worked. I definitely found myself quite obsessive about it. You think the highs are going to keep going up and we forget the lows are low. It was good to be like, “Oh yeah, me too. Just like everybody else.”