Toronto Film Review: ‘Mission Congo’

'Mission Congo' Review: Pat Robertson Has

Lara Zizic and David Turner's engrossing documentary lays out the case against Southern Baptist pastor Pat Robertson.

While perhaps best-known now for his bottomless wellspring of wackjob theories — most recently alleging that San Francisco gays deliberately spread AIDS via sharpened, blood-bearing finger rings — Southern Baptist pastor Pat Robertson has long been a U.S. evangelical kingpin, his savvy use of popular media having played a huge role in the politicization of the Christian right in recent decades. So his lack of accountability for the deeds alleged in Lara Zizic and David Turner’s engrossing “Mission Congo” is all the more appalling. An impressive array of witnesses lend ballast to claims that Robertson’s Operation Blessing — which raised millions in tax-free donations to purportedly help Rwandan genocide refugees — was simply a front for covert diamond mining. Docu is sure to stir controversy as well as tube and possible theatrical sales.

Abrupt “ethnic cleaning” of the Tutsis by the Hutus in early 1994 killed as many as one million Rwandans. Another 800,000 fled over the border to Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of Congo), where those not already wounded or ill fell prey to starvation, dehydration and cholera. (Many of their assailants soon followed, bringing rape and other forms of violence to the chaotic scene.) The international community struggled to import sufficient help and supplies for this massive crisis.

Robertson & Co. soon jumped on the bandwagon, imploring viewers of his own Christian Broadcasting Network to send donations so that Operation Blessing could airlift in badly needed doctors, medicines, food, etc. But as volunteers and staff for other relief organizations already there recall, OB barely made its presence felt in the enormous refugee camps, and when spotted, its personnel often seemed more interested in proselytizing than in providing medical or material aid. Nonetheless, the network ran hours of footage purporting to show its good works in Zaire, some passing off workers from other humanitarian orgs (like Doctors With Borders) as its own, others simply serving as photo ops for the flown-in Robertson himself.

Operation Blessing created its own airstrip near the refugee crisis center. But many, including one of the cargo planes’ own pilots, say those vehicles seldom carried the physicians and relief supplies CBN donors thought they were funding. Instead, the aircraft simply refueled before traveling on to the opposite, Western side of the country, there delivering  equipment to mine diamonds under a deal between Zaire’s corrupt then-president and Robertson’s for-profit African Development Co. (When this contract finally ran out, the docu alleges, Robertson negotiated a new one with the government of Liberia, another notorious African human-rights abuser.) Locals say that community improvements they were promised by the Western visitors never materialized.

Reporter Bill Sizemore of the the Virginian-Pilot in the evangelical entrepreneur’s home state caught wind of all this and published expose articles (Robertson in turn allegedly attempted to have him fired). A subsequent official state investigation purportedly found ample evidence of fraud — yet no prosecution ensued, as the then-governor and attorney general blocked it. (Both were significant allies/campaign-donation beneficiaries of guess-who.)

Even now, the pic says, Operation Blessing continues to solicit donations for purported humanitarian efforts that include operation of Congo hospitals and schools never actually built, and a failed agricultural project started and abandoned in 1994.

In addition to plentiful archival footage, the film includes recent testimony from individuals who once worked or are still working with the U.N.; legit humanitarian-relief and religious watchdog organizations; erstwhile Zairean officials and residents; and several who now regret their association with this questionable Christian “mission.” One person not heard from here (except in myriad Christian Broadcasting Network excerpts, invariably asking viewers for money) is Robertson himself, who refused to be interviewed by the filmmakers, though in wake of the docu’s Toronto premiere, he’s already threatened legal action against them.

The point is made that the U.S. badly needs to improve its legal oversight of charities, particularly religious ones, to ensure claims of humanitarian aid are verifiable. If even a fraction of the accusations in “Mission Congo” are true, Robertson is a very lucky man to have spent the last two decades at liberty.

Blown up for the bigscreen, the older video footage is of variable quality. Assembly is straightforward.

Toronto Film Review: 'Mission Congo'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs), Sept. 6, 2013. Running time: 68 MIN.

Production

(Documentary) A C-Colony production. (International sales: Cinephil, Tel Aviv.) Produced by Eric Heidenreich, David Turner, Lara Zizic.

Crew

Directed, written by Lara Zizic, David Turner. Camera (color, HD), Turner, Zizic; editors, Michael Saia, Troy Mercury; music, Murray Gold; sound, Chen Harpaz.

With

Samantha Bolton, Jannes van der Wilk, Chris McGreal, Bill Sizemore, Richard Walton, Ole Anthony, Lindsay Hilsum, Sid Slackman, Craig MacFarland, Bob Hinkle, Jesse Pots. (English, French dialogue)

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  1. Jimmy Coleman says:

    Pat Robertson is not a Southern Baptist. I am and I know.

    • This PR response doesn’t sway me in the least. Why would a preacher ever buy a diamond mine to begin with? Robertson lies on a regular basis and has millions to pay a PR firm to lie for him.

  2. Chris Roslan says:

    Operation Blessing International (OB) has issued the following statement in response to the malicious allegations in the film Mission Congo:

    The premise of the so-called “documentary,” Mission Congo, is based on alleged events of almost 20 years ago. Indeed, the film relies heavily on reports from 1) one local newspaper whose reporter has never, to our knowledge, even stepped foot in the region in question, and 2) is also based on interviews with individuals who were either not directly involved with the charity’s operations or not aware of the intricacies of those operations.

    We find it necessary to respond to not only the overall theme that Dr. Robertson somehow profited “on the back of a non-existent aid project,” as was erroneously reported in the media, but also to clear up specific falsehoods about Operation Blessing’s activities and other malicious and defamatory comments that have been made in the film by the filmmakers.

    The following is a point-by-point refutation of some of the major misstatements in the movie and associated media reports:

    -In Zaire, Operation Blessing was responsible for the medical needs of approximately 100,000 refugees from Rwanda. To launch this effort, Dr. Robertson personally paid to charter a DC8 airplane to ship 80,000 pounds of medicine to Goma. Over the following year, additional shipments of medicines and medical equipment were sent elsewhere in the country including one shipment with 12 tons of medicine that was donated to the government of Zaire on May 17, 1995.

    -Operation Blessing’s relief efforts at the time were under the supervision of Bob Fanning, a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel who served as Executive Vice President and CEO of the organization. He personally oversaw the medical shipments and the teams of doctors and other medical staff in Zaire during this crisis. Without question, the work of OB in Zaire was exemplary and resulted in the relief of much human suffering.

    -Jessie Potts, who was oddly referenced in the film as being the “operations manager for Robertson in Goma in 1994,” was not an employee of Operation Blessing. Our records indicate he was a volunteer, and only for a short time.

    -Mr. Potts’ quote about the medications that OB provided as not being useful (“too much Tylenol”) is completely unfounded. OB records confirm that hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of emergency medicines (including many different varieties of antibiotics, anti-malarial drugs, anti-diarrheal medications, oral rehydration salts) along with other medical equipment (intravenous equipment, x-ray machines, lab equipment, bandages, forceps, syringes, etc) were flown into the country by Operation Blessing on multiple occasions. Interestingly, OB records do not show any Tylenol being sent by the organization.

    -A further allegation claims that Operation Blessing only had one tent and seven doctors on the ground in Goma. In fact, the organization sent at least six medical relief teams to Goma between July and December 1994. The medical relief teams ranged in size from approximately seven to seventeen persons and included doctors, nurses and paramedics. The first team arrived in Goma on July 24, 1994. On the same day, OB arranged for 66,000 pounds of medicine and supplies to arrive in Goma on an aircraft it had chartered from Amsterdam.

    -Regarding school and farm in Dumi that were originally built by Operation Blessing, they are both thriving today. When Operation Blessing left the country in 1997 due to political unrest and violence, the school and farm were given to the National Baptist Community (CBCO). CBCO operated both of these continually until another American relief organization took over operation in 2008.

    -Under its new operators, the school now has many new upgrades including solar powered lighting, new paint and repaired furniture. It currently has over 100 students registered for the fall term. Its current headmaster was one of the first local people to work for Operation Blessing in the early 1990s. A sign on the school still reads, “Don De L’Operation Benediction” (French for: Donated by Operation Blessing). This was confirmed this week by Jon Cassel, CBN’s director of Africa operations who was on the ground in Zaire with Operation Blessing in the 1990s and has returned multiple times each year ever since to meet with the current operators.

    -The farm is also thriving today, although it did struggle the first several years due to the learning curve involved with cultivation in Africa. Today, more than 1250 acres are under cultivation and its produce helps to feed many families in the area. The farm and the school, first founded by Operation Blessing, are a permanent legacy of the organization’s work in the region.

    -While Operation Blessing partners with other aid groups on humanitarian efforts all around the world on a daily basis, we are not aware of any instance in which we made use of another organization’s photos or videos without accompanying explanation. In fact, due to its affiliation with CBN, Operation Blessing always travels with its own cameras and would have no reason to use someone else’s videos.

    -Roughly twenty years ago, Operation Blessing purchased three World War II used airplanes for aid relief in Africa. A short time later, a personal business entity of Dr. Robertson’s called the African Development Corporation (ADC), bought one of the planes from OB for full market value and the price paid by OB. All three planes were shipped across the Atlantic to the Congo. In addition to paying for all the operating expenses for the ADC flights, Dr. Robertson made substantial contributions from personal funds to help OB cover the costs of its flight operations in Zaire.

    -The planes turned out to be unreliable, were constantly breaking down and it became difficult to secure spare parts for them. So the missions were occasionally overlapped using whatever plane(s) was/were working. The ADC plane was partly used to haul humanitarian supplies for OB, while the OB planes were partly used to haul freight for ADC. All usage of the OB planes for ADC purposes was fully paid for by ADC.

    -Robert Hinkle, referred to in the film as being “the chief pilot for Operation Blessing” in Zaire in 1994, never worked for Operation Blessing.

    -When the planes did not work out as expected, Dr. Robertson personally donated $400,000 to OB to cover its costs of acquiring the two airplanes.

    -The total take in the diamond mining operation was exactly one stone weighing about an eighth of a carat. The effort was a total failure and was abandoned, with Dr. Robertson donating the equipment to the African church that owned the river concession. The operations of ADC resulted in a substantial personal financial loss to Dr. Robertson. Media reports suggesting that Dr. Robertson “enriched” himself by diamond mining are grossly false.

    -The Virginia Attorney General’s office conducted an exhaustive study of Bill Sizemore’s allegations and found no evidence of wrongdoing by Pat Robertson or Operation Blessing. The report was jointly signed by four Deputy and Assistant’ Attorneys General.

    -As for “fraudulent and deceptive statements” attributed to Dr. Robertson by the Virginian Pilot, the Attorney General found that of all the references to the Congo activities on The 700 Club, there was one instance of an inaccurate statement, but it was deemed as inadvertent and no funds were raised based on this statement. Further, a letter* written by the Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service of the Commonwealth of Virginia to the Editor of the Virginian Pilot, dated July 21, 1999, scolded that newspaper for its “inaccurate” reporting of the story. The Commissioner expressly agreed with the Attorney General’s findings, saying, “Anyone who has read both reports will conclude that the state’s lawyers checked out the issues thoroughly and applied the facts to the law. I am satisfied with their conclusion that there was no evidence of intent to defraud.” (*Copies of letter and the Attorney General report available upon request)

    -The allegations stemming from the Virginian Pilot were also brought to the attention of the Internal Revenue Service, which examined the facts and took no action.

    -As for allegations that authorities chose not to prosecute because of campaign donations made by Dr. Robertson, those are ridiculous and completely without merit. Multiple assistant Attorneys General reviewed the matter and the 38-page report was signed by the Chief Deputy Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General, the Senior Assistant Attorney General, and the Assistant Attorney General, none of whom received any donation from Dr. Robertson or Operation Blessing.

    The fact remains that Operation Blessing has grown into one of the largest charities in America. Founded by Dr. Robertson in 1978, the organization continues to provide strategic disaster relief, medical aid, hunger relief, clean water and community development in 23 countries around the world on a daily basis. Currently, Forbes ranks OBI as one of its “100 Largest Charities” with an efficiency rating of 99%, and Consumers Digest also named OBI as one of “America’s Top Charities” in 2012. For seven years in a row (2005-2011), OBI was awarded Charity Navigator’s coveted 4 star rating for sound fiscal management, a feat that only 2% of rated charities have ever achieved. Operation Blessing International has touched the lives of more than 255 million people in more than 105 countries and 50 states, providing goods and services valued at over $3.3 billion to date.

    To see an electronic press kit of OBI’s work please visit:

    # # #

    CONTACT:
    Chris Roslan
    Spokesperson for Operation Blessing International

  3. joanne says:

    where can i see it ?? upcoming perhaps on t.v

  4. J Hill says:

    FYI, Robertson is neither a pastor nor a Southern Baptist.

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