Mission Congo

Not so much humanitarian aid.

Not so much humanitarian aid.

(2012) Documentary (C-Colony) Pat Robertson, Robert Hinkle, Jessie Pott. Directed by David Turner and Lara Zizic

Florida Film Festival 2014

In the interest of transparency, I’m not a big fan of organized religion. Any human agency that acts as a middle man between the believer and whatever God they worship is highly suspect as far as I’m concerned. I’m suspicious of anyone who tells me they have an inkling of God’s plan, particularly if God’s plan includes my checkbook.

In 1994, the Rwandan genocide was in full force and millions of refugees poured out of that country and into what was then known as Zaire, the neighboring country. Establishment of refugee camps was initially highly disorganized and soon the camps were beset by disease, starvation and overcrowding. Doctors Without Borders, the International Red Cross and other aid organizations immediately dispatched teams to help with the critical situation.

Televangelist Pat Robertson also sent out pleas for aid. He established the charitable fund Operation Blessing. He got on his television ministry program, The 700 Club to plead for immediate aid. That money, he told viewers, would be used to send out teams of doctors who would be boots on the ground helping those who needed it. Funds would also be used to send desperately needed medicine and supplies for the refugees.

As time went on, Robertson bragged how his organization had been a godsend in the crisis, among the first on the front lines of saving those in need, establishing a school in the nearby town of Dumi and setting up a farm to feed the surrounding area. Both entities, the website for Operation Blessing insists, are in full flower today serving the needs of the locals.

A story in the Virginia Pilot newspaper took a critical look at the funds for Operation Blessing and discovered that the claims being made on television weren’t backed up by the tax records for the charity. Documentarians Zizic and Turner decided to make a documentary on the subject.

Their assertion is that contrary to the glowing reports broadcast on The 700 Club and on the website of Operation Blessing (or OBI as it’s known as), OBI was not the presence it made itself out to be. Physicians from Doctors Without Borders don’t recall seeing a presence from the Robertson-backed organization, and what presence was there was usually accompanied by a camera crew.

In fact, the film alleges that Robertson was much more interested in his diamond mining operation through the African Development Corporation which he owned in partnership with a pastor in Zaire – what is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In fact, planes carrying what were supposed to be shipments of aid and personnel to the refugee camp in Goma actually carried mining equipment, according to Hinkle who is characterized by the filmmakers as the Chief Pilot of Operation Blessing (although OBI denies he ever worked for them).

The filmmakers do show through broadcast footage from the Christian Broadcast Network (Robertson’s cable channel) and The 700 Club that doctors and medical personnel that they claimed had been flown there by Operation Blessing were actually from Doctors Without Borders and the supplies they showed were from the Red Cross. They do make a pretty compelling case.

The 2011 tax returns submitted by OBI list somewhere north of $120 million in revenue but are not specific as to where that money is going. The filmmakers make the reasonable suggestion that current laws protecting  tax-exempt charities (which the OBI is registered as) require them to show specifically how their money is spent.

We don’t get to see Robertson’s side of the story although apparently an invitation was extended to him and his organization to participate; they have threatened to sue the filmmakers (which apparently hasn’t yet come to pass as of this writing) and have issued press releases vehemently denying the charges leveled at them.

I would be the first to tell you that just because someone makes a documentary film doesn’t mean they are on the side of the angels; you can spin things about any way you want to so it behooves you to check into things more thoroughly before accepting the opinion of anybody on anything, particularly one with a very specific point of view. However, the filmmakers present their case so well using footage and testimony of people who were there, I can’t help think that if Robertson wasn’t guilty of outright fraud, he was at least complicit in misleading the public. Which one would think someone professing to follow the teachings of Christ would be loathe to do.

REASONS TO GO: Builds a well-ordered case against Operation Blessing in particular and televangelism in general.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks balance. Takes awhile to get going.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language and disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Tammy Faye

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Draft Day

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