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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Hotel Rwanda


Hotel Rwanda

Even all these nuns couldn't pray Don Cheadle into the Oscar he well-deserved.

(2004) True Life Drama (United Artists) Don Cheadle, Nick Nolte, Sophie Okonedo, Desmond Dube, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Joaquin Phoenix, Antonio David Lyons, David O’Hara, Lebo Mashile, Jean Reno, Cara Seymour, Thulani Nyembe. Directed by Terry George

 

The thing about human beings, is that even when you hit us in the face with a two by four, we still don’t get it. Many of us read the history books about the Holocaust and the Nazi Final Solution, Hitler’s attempt to exterminate Jews, Gypsies and millions of other people he didn’t like. We read about how many people turned a blind eye to the horrors of the 1930s and ’40s and we comfort ourselves by saying, “I’d never do that.”

And yet we do. The same thing happened in Rwanda in 1994, and nobody seemed to notice. It’s happening now, in Darfur, but few speak up. The consequences of silence can be terrible. Ask the Tutsis of Rwanda, if you can find any. There are significantly fewer of them now.

Paul Ruesesabagina (Cheadle) lived in Rwanda in 1994. He was the assistant manager of the swank Hotel Des Milles Colline, and a good one. Calm, efficient and competent, he used bribery, flattery and an impeccable sense of style to please his guests and grease the wheels of a corrupt system in the former Belgian colony that is now Rwanda. He lived a life of quiet comfort with his family.

But there are storm clouds on the horizon. The Belgians, while they occupied their former colony, had arbitrarily divided the people into two “tribes” — the lighter skinned, smaller-nosed were dubbed Tutsis and were given the authority to help them run the country. Inexplicably, when the Belgians left, they gave power to the Hutus. Animosities over years of oppression boiled over into a genocidal hatred, whipped up by a radio announcer/importer named George Rutuganda (Kae-Kazim).

Paul, a Hutu, is unconcerned at first. When his brother-in-law comes to warn him of impending disaster, he dismisses the warnings as hysteria. Then it begins, suddenly, brutally, given the excuse of the murder of the Rwandan president, ostensibly by Tutsi rebels, with whom a peace treaty has just been signed under the good auspices of the UN and the commander of their peacekeeping forces, Colonel Oliver (Nolte).

Now, Paul is faced with friends, neighbors and employees who are at risk because they are Tutsis. Paul’s wife Tatiana (Okonedo, previously seen in Dirty Pretty Things) is also Tutsi, as are his children. His safe world crumples amidst anarchy, chaos and brutal violence. Men, women and children are slaughtered by machetes, hacked to pieces by the hundreds. Paul and his family barely escape the carnage and make it to the hotel, where white European guests are panicking, trying to get out of a country gone berserk. Refugees, orphans left by a Red Cross worker (Seymour) begin to pour into the hotel. Paul, realizing that turning them away would be tantamount to a death sentence, takes them in, confident that he can wait out the storm until the west sends help.

But help is not forthcoming. The Americans, stung by their experiences in Somalia, don’t wish to walk into another hornet’s nest. The rest of the European nations follow suit. As the foreign nationals are all evacuated, Paul realizes that they must save themselves. And in order to do that, he must maintain the illusion that the Hotel des Milles Collines is still a five-star resort, a place of style where even the generals and butchers who preside at massacres can go to feel civilized.

Hotel Rwanda is harrowing. There are many irrational men with guns committing acts of unspeakable horror, and Cheadle, as Paul, is our eyes and ears. There is a scene where he is driving down the River Road in the early morning fog on the advice of the monstrous Rutuganda, when the car begins to hit a very rough road. Paul, fearing they have gone off the road, orders the driver to stop. He gets out of the car to see if they are still on the pavement and is met with the sight of hundreds of bodies lying in the road as far as the eye can see, children whose faces are grimaces of terror and pain. After returning to the hotel, he goes to change his shirt, which has been stained with the blood of the corpses on the road in the employee locker room. Attempting to tie his tie, he at last gives in to the overwhelming emotions of what he has witnessed and breaks down. It is a powerful, powerful scene, performed by a brilliant actor.

Don Cheadle earned an Oscar nomination for his performance here, and there are a lot of compelling reasons why he should have won, instead of Jamie Foxx. Rather than making Paul a perfect hero, he humanizes him and becomes the audience’s surrogate. Like all of us, sometimes he just doesn’t know enough to get out of the rain, even when the thunder is booming in his ears. He is in nearly every scene and carries the movie. Cheadle characterizes Paul as a kind of African Oskar Schindler, which in truth, he was. Okonedo is also magnificent, for which she was duly recognized with a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

There is no denying the power of this film. You are immediately sucked into the situation, and affected by it. You may wonder, as I did, “Why the hell didn’t I know this was going on? Why didn’t my country do anything about it?” As an embittered reporter, played in a cameo by Phoenix says, “I think if people see this footage, they’ll say ‘Oh, my God, that’s horrible.’ And then they’ll go on eating their dinners.”

While I found Kinyarwanda to be a much more authentic and moving film (also about the Rwandan genocide, but more about how that country is moving towards reconciliation), this is certainly the most acclaimed film of the two and thus the easiest to locate for viewing/streaming/renting. Hotel Rwanda also boasts the performances of Cheadle and Okonedo, which are both outstanding and worth the rental fee alone.

This should be required viewing for every American and every European. We should see this powerful movie, not to feel bad about ourselves, but for us to look at the images of genocide and say “Not again. Not in my lifetime.” And, above all, to take action, to demand our leaders take action. We may feel safe and secure in our world. I’m sure the real Paul Ruesesabagina did. So did many German Jews in 1936. The storm clouds can gather anywhere – at any time.

WHY RENT THIS: Intense Oscar-nominated performances by Cheadle and Okonedo. A story that up until this movie was little seen or remembered in the West. Powerful and horrifying.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Is a bit Hollywoodized.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a good deal of violence, some foul language and some extremely disturbing images. While it got a PG-13 rating on appeal, do consider very carefully the sensitivity of those viewing it before renting it for your family, although it is certainly something teens should see.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a featurette on the real Paul Ruesesabagina returning to Rwanda almost a decade after the genocide, and to specific locations depicted in the film (including the hotel and the site of the school massacre).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33.9M on an unreported prodution budget; I’d be willing to guess that the movie broke even or made a little bit of money.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax