Many film festivals have a theme or a focus; for instance, Asian, comedy, gay/lesbian, environment, or, in the case of the Anthem Film Festival, libertarian. When you go to a film festival in which the theme reflects your views, as Anthem does mine, you don’t expect to have your ideas challenged. Yet, two of the documentaries at this festival caused my brain to do a reboot.
Poverty, Inc., an examination of the charity/foreign aid system, and Exit, a look at the withdrawal of Norwegian troops from Afghanistan, may turn your ideas on their head, too.
REBOOT 1: Poverty, Inc., was the Anthem Grand Prize winner. It was directed by Michael Matheson Miller who explored the results of over 50 years of foreign aid. I thought it was all good. But Miller interviews entrepreneurs in the so called “developing countries”, revealing that they really haven’t been developing much at all.
The motivations of large non-governmental-organizations (NGOs), such as CARE or Save the Children, are never called into question. They have, however, become part of a system which perpetuates the problems of the poor.
Here is how this happens. Many developing county governments receive foreign aid from the United States and other Western nations. The power structure develops around the distribution of this money, rather than the development of commerce in their own country. Then, the NGOs enter the picture, distributing food, clothing, and medical supplies either directly to the populations of these countries or to the governments. In either case, this undercuts local businesses and agriculture.
Even efforts from private companies like TOMs Shoes can be counterproductive. For every pair of shoes you buy from TOMs, they give a pair to a child in Argentina. How could that be bad? Because the local shoe factories could not compete with free. They laid off their employees and went out of business. Poverty was increased.
During the Q&A after the film, I shared that for several years I had been giving generously to an NGO named Heifer International. Was I making things worse?
To my great relief, the answer was “No”. Instead of giving money, Heifer International provides farm and stock animals to help people start their own businesses. That — enterprise and freedom — is the only real cure for poverty. Find out more at the Poverty, Inc. site.
REBOOT 2: After 13 years of US involvement, I thought I knew all I needed to about Afghanistan. Then I saw Exit. This film, directed by Klaus Erik Okstad, Olav Njaastad,and Anders Somme, chronicles the departure of NATO forces from a Norwegian post, Camp Meymaneh, and what happened when the Afghan army took over.
The film personalizes the experience by interviewing people who live in the province where the base was located. It becomes clear that there are two kinds of people in Afghanistan: those who have the money to leave and those who are stuck in this sinking ship of a country. I discovered I had new sympathy for both groups.
My most surprising reevaluation involved Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t become a Karzai fan, but in the film we see him visit the city after a Taliban bomb exploded outside a mosque inflicting heavy casualties. He actually seemed empathetic and concerned with helping his people. He is still a corrupt, drug-dealing, autocrat who will probably escape his burning country with billions of dollars, but he does appear to have a heart.
A representative of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, Marius Arnesen was on hand to answer questions. Arnesen was also involved in the filming in Afghanistan. I asked whether when going in to create the film, they were optimistic or whether they expected everything to “go to hell?”
Arnesesn smiled at the question. “Actually, we were expecting the Taliban to overrun the former Norwegian camp almost immediately,” he said. “We had helicopters ready to get us out of there. The fact that the Afghan government maintained control was something of a victory.”
Exit won the Best Documentary Award at the UK Film Festival, but is not currently available for viewing in the United States.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0061733202,0061661236,0240812417]