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Toronto Film Review: ‘Mission Congo’

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

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)

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.

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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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