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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Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux)


Of Gods and Men

Brother Christian is none to happy that the liberalized Vatican guidelines don’t allow him to administer corporal punishment any longer.

(2010) True Life Drama (Sony Classics) Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach, Jacques Herlin, Loic Pichon, Xavier Maly, Jean-Marie Frin, Abdelhafid Metalsi, Sabrina Ouazani, Abdallah Moundy, Olivier Perrier. Directed by Xavier Beauvois

 

Courage isn’t necessarily picking up a gun or a weapon. Sometimes it isn’t even uttering a cross word. Fighting for what you believe in takes a special type of courage, I’ll grant you but refusing to fight for it sometimes takes even more. Sometimes the greatest courage is to allow events to run their course.

In a small village in Algeria (not named in the movie but where the actual incident took place) in 1996, there was a remote Trappist Monastery made up of seven aging French monks. Although the village was completely Islamic, the monks live a serene pastoral life of raising their own crops and honey, praying and singing daily (the soundtrack is actually breathtaking with beautiful Gregorian chants), and dispensing medicine and clothing to the impoverished villages. They are not attempting to convert anyone to Catholicism, they simply do what they can to help and otherwise show their devotion to God through their simple lifestyle and their will to do good for those around them.

But the outside world isn’t necessarily a perfect place and Islamic fundamentalist violence has begun to show its ugly head. A group of Bulgarian construction workers are viciously attacked and murdered, their throats slit. Another woman is murdered for not wearing a veil. The violence is escalating throughout the country and the government is concerned for the well-being of the monks. They offer to relocate them somewhere that is at least temporarily safer.

However, Brother Christian (Wilson), the monk elected leader and spokesman of their little group, feels that their place is in the village where they can continue to do good work. The government offers them protection, volunteering to station military men at the monastery but Brother Christian believes this would be inappropriate. Despite the growing danger, he wants to stay. Not all the monks are on board with this idea, however.

Despite the fact that the monks live in harmony with the villagers and offer care free of charge, despite the high regard in which their neighbors hold them, the inevitable happens and terrorists begin to turn their keen eyes on the monastery. It soon becomes obvious that the monks are in mortal danger, with each one reacting in his own way to the prospect of their own deaths staring them in the face. The monastery’s doctor, the 70-something Brother Luc (Lonsdale) is sanguine but others are less so.

This was France’s official entry into the 2011 Foreign Language Film Oscar sweepstakes and it’s easy to see why. Not only is this beautifully filmed – the composition of the various scenes is as close to paintings as film gets – but it is beautifully acted as well. Lonsdale in particular will grab your attention; he is at turns cantankerous and serene. Wilson, best known as the flamboyant Merovingian in the Matrix trilogy, is a quiet leader who persuades rather than commands. His relationship with the village elders is based on trust and respect, and he knows the Koran as well if not better than the terrorists who quote it.

But this is not about terrorism or even death. It’s about belief and faith, and how powerful those things can be even in the face of pain and death. This is a movie that invites quiet contemplation. Much of the first part of the film depicts the daily life of the monks; it makes the second half so much more powerful because of it. American audiences might have trouble sitting through the first part but I found it to be very evocative. Who wouldn’t love a lifestyle so simple and so fulfilling?

This is a depiction of humanity both at its worst and at its best. You may recoil at the inhumanity and cruelty of men, but you will be uplifted by the courage and nobility of men as well. Catholics have taken their fair share of shots lately. This is a fictionalized version of these events but nevertheless I must confess that this movie made me prouder to be Catholic than I have been in a very long time.

WHY RENT THIS: Heartbreaking and soul-stirring. Marvelous performances all around but particularly by Lonsdale and Wilson.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very understated.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images including one scene of devastating violence and also  bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won three Cesars (the French equivalent of the Oscars) in 2011, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Lonsdale.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette in which the actual monastery where these events took place is visited, and also another one in which author John W. Kiser, who wrote a book on the events, discusses the real Tibehirine monks at Merrimack College with Augustine academics.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $42.2M on an unreported production budget; this was undoubtedly a big hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Where Do We Go Now?

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: I’m Still Here