Regardless of their Oscar chances (“Road to Guantanamo” is ineligible due to its TV debut in the U.K. prior to its theatrical release), the following topical features have generated debate for tackling politically charged issues in styles that range from docudrama to black comedy. A rundown:
Issue: The illicit West African diamond trade — an industry marked by worker exploitation, human rights abuses and child soldiers — in which “conflict diamonds” are mined in war zones and sold to finance those battles.
P.O.V: “(Director) Ed (Zwick) saw this as an opportunity to talk about some of the really painful and difficult circumstances that persist (in Africa),” says producer Marshall Herskovitz. “This backdrop is all real — real horrors committed during a civil war. I’m hoping this subject matter resonates with people, and maybe they can apply it to other situations around the world today.”
Victims: Laborers and child soldiers forced from their families to toil in Sierra Leone’s diamond fields and participate in that country’s bloody civil war in the 1990s.
Villains: The warlords, mercenaries, corrupt government officials and shady diamond execs, prompting the United Nations to implement the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) in 2002 in an effort to prevent conflict diamonds from reaching the market.
Fact vs. fiction: “Africa has been just as exploited over the years by storytellers as it was by mining, oil and diamond companies,” Herskovitz says. “We did an extraordinary amount of research and (employed) remarkable technical advisers. One of them, Sorious Samura, had made a documentary about the civil war in Sierra Leone. One day he came to the diamond field set we created — I watched his face and how affected he was by it. He particularly congratulated us on the color of the dirt — for getting that little fact right.”
Resolution: “All I know is Sierra Leone is not in a civil war any longer, but it is hardly the most stable place, and there are still thousands of child soldiers, unfortunately, throughout Africa,” Herskovitz says. “We’ve had the Kimberly Process going on for a few years, and there is a difference of opinion about whether it has been successful or not.”
CATCH A FIRE
Issues: Separatist legislation and fascistic, racially biased police tactics implemented by South Africa’s white-ruling apartheid regime and challenged in the 1980s by one of the real-life rebel fighters, Patrick Chamusso, played by Derek Luke.
P.O.V.: “I thought that, after 9/11, there were some parallels that could be drawn between what happened in Patrick’s story and what is going on now,” says Shawn Slovo, the film’s screenwriter and daughter of famous white African National Congress member Joe Slovo. “The whole issue of feeling justified in fighting a revolution, followed by reconciliation and forgiveness, and the theme that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter were topics we wanted to investigate.”
Victims: Millions of black South Africans subjected to minority rule, inferior public services and stripped of their political voice during the apartheid era.
Villains: South Africa’s colonialist, Afrikaner regime and fictional antiterrorist officer Nic Vos (Tim Robbins).
Fact vs. fiction: “(Director) Phillip Noyce was adamant that everything of significance had to have happened in real life,” Slovo says. “The big events are all true, and within that framework, dramatic license was taken to move things backward and forward in time, change locations and so forth. We also used a couple of composite characters, particularly Nic Vos.”
Resolution: “The miracle of the transformation in South Africa is the big outcome,” says Slovo. “That is not to say there aren’t still huge problems, because there are. But the point is, there was a peaceful transformation. That is why the country is strong today. That’s the opposite of the resolution we are seeing in the Middle East, unfortunately.”
FAST FOOD NATION
Issues: Worker exploitation and health hazards associated with America’s fast-food industry.
P.O.V.: Based on the best-selling book by Eric Schlosser, Richard Linklater’s ensemble film highlights “not so much health issues involved (with eating fast food) as with the source of that food — where the meat comes from, how it is prepared, how is it profitable to make you something to eat that costs just 99¢,” explains producer Jeremy Thomas.
Victims: From illegal immigrants working in slaughterhouses under unsafe conditions to low-wage employees of fast food chains to unwitting consumers.
Villains: The billion-dollar fast-food industry, and the corporations behind that industry who will “sell you food that is only 20% what you think it is,” Thomas adds.
Fact vs. fiction: “The specific stories are human stories about (fictionalized) characters, but there is complete truth and accuracy to (the world they inhabit),” Thomas insists. “The stories are based on reports that have all been verified — people injured on slaughterhouse lines, getting their arms ripped off, all that is proven. Huge lakes — lagoons of shit all over the place on these farms, water systems full of antibiotics, hormones, fertilizer with weevils — all that is really going on.”
Resolution: “The industry remains huge — there is profit in it, after all,” says Thomas. “But I view it a bit like global warming — the tipping point maybe has not been reached yet, but people are, at least, starting to understand what is happening, and to think that maybe it is time to look at the quality of food we eat.”
THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND
Issues: Brutal police-state tactics and genocide implemented in the 1970s during the tumultuous reign of dictator Idi Amin.
P.O.V.: Kevin Macdonald’s film is told from the perspective of fictional young Scottish physician Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), who is drawn into Amin’s inner circle, and examines “that dichotomy between evil and normalcy,” says Lisa Bryer, one of the film’s producers. Based on a book by Giles Foden and adapted by Jeremy Brock, the story also suggests that many Ugandans and foreign dignitaries were seduced by Amin’s charm and, knowingly or unknowingly, provided cover for his regime for many years.
Victims: The millions of Ugandans brutalized, tortured and killed during Amin’s reign.
Villains: Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) and his henchmen.
Fact vs. fiction: “The idea was to tell you about Idi Amin through his relationship with Garrigan, and to do that, we had to create a made-up character (against) the backdrop of the real Uganda under Idi Amin,” says Bryer. “People argue now about what (Amin) did or did not do. But, for me, it is not so important if each of those incidents is true. What’s important is that people get the idea of what it was like.”
Resolution: “We learned a lot about Uganda,” Bryer says. “The country has moved on enormously. When Amin left, there were no hospitals; banks and roads were destroyed; and there was no economy. Now, under (current president Yoweri Museveni), things are much better, and he finally put an end to (conflict in northern Uganda). On the other hand, he amended their constitution to allow himself to stay in power, so that shows you they have a long way to go.”
THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO
Issues: Prisoner detainment, abuse and torture committed in the name of the war on terror.
P.O.V.: Directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross approach the subject documentary-style via the viewpoints of the real-life Tipton Three — a trio of British Pakistanis who, during a trip to Pakistan, enter Afghanistan and are promptly captured, turned over to American forces and held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility for two years without being charged with a crime.
Victims: British citizens Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul, along with their friend Monir, who disappeared in Afghanistan and was never heard from again — and, by implication, hundreds of other detainees.
Villains: American military and political authorities who resort to tactics that challenge both the Geneva Convention and habeas corpus.
Fact vs. fiction: “All movies, even documentaries, select versions of events and how they want to tell them, and we are no different,” explains Whitecross. “Certain things we could confirm with background research — about how they got picked up by the (Afghani) Northern Alliance, certain kinds of abuse at Guantanamo that has been corroborated by other detainees, and so forth. Other things are only known to those who were there, and so we present their version of events.”
Resolution: “I wish our film could help bring the abuse to an end, but I don’t think any film can really change that, unfortunately,” Whitecross says. “The movie has been used in campaigns by Amnesty Intl. and Human Rights Watch, and that is great. But the truth is, it’s still very difficult to know what is going on today at Guantanamo and other secret prisons, since there still is no transparency.”
THANK YOU FOR SMOKING
Issues: Big tobacco and its methodology for marketing and promoting a product that’s a proven health hazard.
P.O.V.: Jason Reitman’s film, based on a novel by Christopher Buckley, takes a satirical look at how the cigarette industry will stop at nothing to broaden its consumer base via the roguish charms of a lobbyist played by Aaron Eckhart. “This film isn’t about showing smoking is bad for you — we all know that already,” says Reitman. “It’s about the fact that we need to feel empowered to take personal responsibility for our own actions, whether you are a corporation or a consumer.”
Victims and villains: “There are no victims and no villains,” Reitman insists. “We can’t place blame. Although (lead character) Nick (Eckhart) has an odd way of justifying things, this movie is more a satire about how oversensitive we have all become. Usually, if you make a movie about the tobacco industry, the hero is the guy who tries to bring them down. Here, the ‘hero’ is the guy who says if you want to smoke, smoke.”
Fact vs. fiction: “This is a political satire, not a revelatory film about smoking dangers, and the characters are fictional,” says Reitman. “We’re more poking fun at political dramas than we are trying to accurately represent the (tobacco) industry.”
Resolution: “The (tobacco) industry goes on and people smoke,” adds Reitman. “The only positive message to take is that the key is education. If people are taught to be aware, if we empower our children to make decisions for themselves, then we won’t have to parent them every step of the way when they become older.”