Amnesty International Film Festival: Phone companies' shameful African secrets revealed in Blood in the Mobile
Blood in the Mobile
A documentary by Frank Poulsen. In English and French with English subtitles. Unrated. Plays Friday, November 18, at the 16th annual Amnesty International Film Festival, SFU Harbour Centre, Room 1900, 12 p.m.
Blood in the Mobile is a curious, sometimes exasperating, film. It is also a documentary that deserves the widest viewership possible because of the shameful hidey hole it exposes in one of the world’s fastest-growing and most profitable endeavours: the mobile-phone industry.
Danish filmmaker Frank Poulsen learned that so-called African conflict minerals, or blood minerals, were vital for the manufacture of mobile phones, and also that much of the world’s supply of those minerals (with exotic names like coltan and cassiterite, a tin oxide) came from the violence-wracked reaches of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The DRC had its first multiparty democratic elections in 46 years in 2006, three years after the official end to many years of bloody internal strife (new elections are scheduled for the end of November this year). Although home to one of the largest UN peacekeeping forces ever assembled, the remote, almost roadless areas of the vast eastern DRC is still home to at least five of the most dangerous armed factions extant in that country. It is also home to many illegal mines that produce the valuable minerals that find their way into solder and capacitors that allow the latest models of phones to operate efficiently and become ever tinier and more mobile.
Those mines are mostly little more than cramped, dark, life-threatening tunnels dug into jungle hillsides by displaced Congolese who are used, essentially, as slave labour by a rotating cast of competing militias. These soldiers either seize the minerals as they are brought to the surface or “tax” the miners, often children and teenagers, to the point that they are bound to their hardscrabble existence merely to eat and feed their families.
The profits were, and still are, used to purchase arms and supplies for the historic conflicts in the region (which have been responsible, countrywide, for as many as five million deaths and 300,000 rapes in 15 years).
Mark Craemer photo.
Because Poulsen’s phone is made by Nokia, a Finnish company that manufactures one in every three phones sold on Earth, he decides to take on the task of verifying the extent of the company’s knowledge of its raw-material supply chain and what, if anything, it intends to do about the situation.
What follows is 82 minutes of comically frustrating Michael Moore-style Roger and Me escapades interspersed with some genuinely scary episodes when Poulsen ventures far into the DRC’s eastern forests, in Kivu province, to bring back footage of the mines, their workers, and their armed overseers.
Poulsen’s style is just to let the camera run and allow the images and words to speak for themselves, with his sparse voice-over supplying the connective thread. This results in some powerful passages, including a claustrophobic sequence underground with some freaked-out miners, a tense standoff with an agitated soldier at a checkpoint, and a starkly haunting scene, reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, as he leaves a remote outpost on motorcycle, headed into the trackless forests, and wordlessly passes the junked remains of a cargo aircraft pushed to the side of the only road in the region. He had just flown in on such a plane, which quickly loaded up for its immediate return journey with sacks of minerals stacked by the tiny runway slashed out of the green expanse.
His habit of always keeping the camera running provides some revealing, and humorous, moments, but the lack of any external investigative efforts means some obvious questions--What about the responsibilities of other phone manufacturers? Can technology provide replacements for these minerals? Can the phones simply be built without them? Why can’t a clearer picture of the international supply chain be provided?—are never answered.
Despite some dire, and graphic, warnings about the dangers to be encountered outside of the main cities, Poulsen’s somewhat naïve blundering about while in Africa, although perhaps not as artless as portrayed, did put him in situations from which he might not have returned, and for that one must admire his courage and perseverance.
Interludes with Congolese government and army officials whose lack of sophistication is only surpassed by their monumental vanity provides insight into why the country, even with the best of intentions and a positive result in the upcoming elections, will still need the goodwill and judicious intervention of the international community as it struggles to control its own resources and destiny.
Moore fans will relish the bits where Nokia underlings, squirming while trying to answer Poulsen’s pointed questions, are reduced to spouting bafflegab and platitudes. One wonders why they ever eventually allowed him into their head office with a camera. (It’s not a spoiler to reveal that he never does get to interview the company’s unnamed CEO.)
In the meantime, the mobile-phone industry needs to have its collective feet held to the fire, and Blood in the Mobile is a good start to raising the consciousness of the potential billions of consumers who have the economic clout to force some accountability, and change.
Watch the trailer for Blood in the Mobile.