What links Tupac Shakur and Saddam Hussein? In Fritz Ofner’s engrossing, hypnotically digressive doc, which he co-directed with Eva Hausberger, it is a fascination for the Glock handgun, first patented by Austrian engineer Gaston Glock in 1981, now made by the thousand in the company’s Deutsch-Wagram factory complex, and shipped all over the world.
It seems perverse to label a gun a “design classic” but that’s what the Glock is: with its polymer frame and few moving metal parts, it is easy to strip and very reliable – which makes it the go-to gun for everyone from gangster rappers to law enforcement officers, soldiers and even, in the Middle East, war criminals. Indeed, as Ofner’s film shows, Saddam Hussein’s own personal Glock now hangs in the George W. Bush museum as a souvenir of the war in Iraq.
Just after Ofner’s film “Weapon of Choice” made its Eastern European Premiere in Ji.hlava Intl. Documentary Film Festival’s A Testimony On Politics strand, Variety sat down with the director to talk about the film’s genesis and its long journey to the screen.
When did you specifically hone in on the Glock as the subject of your film?
For my previous projects I travelled a lot to war zones and conflict zones, and everywhere I went I found this myth of this Austrian gun. Because I’m from Austria, people would talk to me about it because they knew it came from there. Back home, I was astonished to see how little is known about this gun. The Glock pistol is, alongside the Kalashnikov, the main weapon of the 20th century – so Gaston Glock is right next to Antonin Kalashnikov as the main weapons engineer of the 20th century. And yet in Austria so little was known about this company, and I was intrigued. I mean, why is it like that? Of course, I later figured out this has a lot to do with the media policy of the Glock company, who, especially in Austria, are very aggressive towards any kinds of report published about them, which led to a climate of fear – most media outlets in Austria wouldn’t even print the name Glock because of the fear of [legal] repercussions. This is where my interest got sparked, but this is also the reason why it took so long to make this film. It’s been six years in the making now. And, still, the legal consequences are not clear to me.
The film is, loosely, in three parts. Why did you start with North America?
The first, basic idea was to follow the guns from their production in Austria to the peoples and places where it’s used. About 90% or 95% of Glock pistols are sold in the United States – it’s by far the biggest arms market in the world. For example, if you sell pistols to the police or to an army unit, you have a very limited amount – the British Army bought Glock pistols for their special services a few years ago, so you’re talking about 20-30-40,000 pistols. But these pistols last very long, so there’s no big business to be made from these sales to law enforcement or to army. The best way that as a gun manufacturer, as a pistol manufacturer, that you can really make money is [to tap] the private market in the United States, because it’s by far the largest. And so it was obvious that the only reason that Glock became such a powerful company is the private market in the United States. That’s why my investigation started in the United States.
What did you learn?
That it’s so prevalent in popular culture there, mostly because of hip-hop music, that it became a generic term for handgun. In the United States sometimes it’s even used as a verb, you know? Like “I Glock you face” or “I Glock you down.” So it became like this generic term for handgun. It’s also, in the 90s, one of the most used marketing names in the Billboard chart hits, and it’s also one of the most used guns in Hollywood movies. So, because of the use in popular culture it became this global icon that it now is.
How did you decide who you were going to talk to there?
I come from a background of cultural anthropology, so one of the ideas was to find Glock owners and then to talk to them about the meaning that they give to this object. Of course, we chose the strongest characters. For me, a pistol is nothing more than a portable killing machine, so there’s a lot of moral questions that surround the ownership of guns. So we had the idea of letting Glock owners talk about the meaning they give to this gun, to really find out more about the forms of structural violence in the United States, and then, of course, [the film] became a portrait of U.S. gun culture, but also about the race divide in the United States, and the divide of rich and poor. On a meta level, there are a lot of stories that can be told through a gun, so, in a sense, it was a storytelling experiment. For example, we show a female gun trainer in the film. For her, the gun is a way of empowering women in a violent conflict with a man who might be more powerful otherwise. But for the former gangster, [the gun] is a way of getting up on the social ladder and to raise his status.
But the gang member also talks about getting “high” on his gun, which is a scary thought…
That’s the thing with guns, because guns, or pistols, are portable killing machines, so they give the owner this power of deciding about life or death. And with this power comes a kind of addiction. In these discussions I was always reminded of The Lord of the Rings, you know? If you put on the ring it gives you a certain power but it also corrupts people, and this pistol gives you the same kind of power. So is this power corrupting you, or is it like an addiction? These were the kinds of questions that were in my head when I was making the film.
Have you ever fired a Glock?
Yes, I did a Glock course with the gun trainer who is in the film, so she showed me how to shoot. But, for me, I don’t like guns, I never had a gun, I never want to have a gun, I don’t want to have guns close to me. But I was fascinated by the fascination people have for guns. I don’t have a fascination for guns myself, but I was fascinated by people who have a fascination for guns. So for me it was also really important not to put my moral judgement onto people. When I’m working with a protagonist, I like to leave my moral judgement at home and see the world through the eyes of my protagonist. I’d rather show the situation, show the person and leave the moral judgement to the viewer.
How did you work with Eva, your co-director?
We worked in a very small crew, so I was doing camera and Eva was doing sound. We did a lot of the research together, and by working in this micro team it was possible for us to stay on location and research for a very long time. If I’d have worked with a crew, I would have had, like, one week or two weeks in each location, because it’s so expensive to shoot with crew. But if you’re shooting with just two people, you can afford to stay one month or two months, with the same budget, which gave us a lot of time for research. We spent a lot of time with our protagonists, and sometimes it doesn’t show. For example, [in the final scenes] we show the soldier who captured Saddam Hussein. It took a long time to find him, to track him down, to gain his trust, and shoot with him. It looks like it was shot in one night and one day, but actually it took us six weeks. We used the same approach in Chicago. Coming from a background of cultural anthropology, I wanted to spend a lot of time with my protagonists before even turning on the camera – I wanted to build a situation of trust and to be very unobtrusive in the way we were shooting, and that’s why we had this kind of very minimalistic approach of just me doing camera and Eva doing sound.
When you went back to Vienna to find out more about the Glock company, were they expecting you?
Yes, we informed the Glock company very early in the process about our project and asked about an interview with Gaston Glock, but then we immediately had a response from a lawyer threatening all kinds of legal response if they didn’t like the film. It was very clear from the beginning that they [would] not [be] collaborating, but they were going to be opposing this film in any way they could. Which of course put us in a very difficult position right from the start. It was obvious that they were not going to support us, they were not going to give us any help, so we had to find a work-around. Since it was obvious that nobody from the company was going to talk to us, we tried finding people who were willing to talk to us, and the only people we found were people who broke with the company, who were sued by the company. One of the people we talked to the former Glock CEO Paul Jannuzzo, who was just released from prison [his conviction was quashed], and the other one was the former Glock trustee, Charles Ewert [a.k.a. “Panama Charly”] who was still in prison for hiring an assassin to murder Gaston Glock [in 1999]. Paul Jannuzzo [told us that] it’s like the mafia – you can get in, but you can’t get out. It’s like Omerta. Only if you break with them, only if you’ve lost everything, only if you’ve been to prison, only if you’ve been convicted, only then do you talk about the company.
What’s interesting about the film is that you clearly could have made a doc about the soap opera that is Gaston Glock’s life. There was the murder attempt, then a messy divorce – did you make a deliberate decision not to go down that route?
Yes, for me it was a very conscious decision. I’m not interested in Gaston Glock’s private life. For me, Gaston Glock is only interesting in the sense that he’s the inventor of the gun and he’s the sole chief of this company. Everything that is connected to him in these two positions was interesting for me, anything that strays off into his private life is not interesting for me. So it was a very conscious decision to leave his private life, his ex-wife, his kids, all that stuff out of the film, because the film for me is about the gun, and he’s interesting in the film because he’s the inventor of the gun and he’s running the gun company.
For the last third of the film you went to Iraq. Did Eva come with you?
No, when I went to Iraq I didn’t want to go with her, I wanted to have a male sound guy, because it’s so difficult to work in these war situations and I didn’t want to put [her life at] risk. Also, when you hang out with soldiers, with gun dealers in the Middle East, it’s a very male-only society. So I didn’t want to jeopardize her security.
Talking of gun dealers, you had a fixer in Iraq who helped you find one. You obviously met some very shady people there, how did you find him?
That’s a really funny story. I found him through Facebook. On Facebook there is a group called the Vulture Club. It’s a closed forum for war reporters, and mostly the aim is to connect war reporters with fixers and translators on the ground in war zones. Through this forum I found a fixer who worked for the U.S. Army in 2008, when the U.S. Army was distributing Glock handguns to the Iraqi armed forces. So from that time he knew all the people who were involved with Glock handguns and he basically arranged everything because of his personal network.
Presumably, one of the conditions of him helping you was you couldn’t show his face, or that of the arms dealer. How do you cope with a problem like that?
Concerning the arms dealer in Iraq, shortly before I arrived there, the Islamic State had carried out a suicide bombing in the arms market in Kirkuk. When I was shooting in Kirkuk, the city was surrounded on three sides by the Islamic State, so it was a very tense situation. Islamic State was trying to destabilize Kirkuk with suicide bombers and so this arms dealer was not afraid of me, but he was afraid that if Islamic State fighters saw him, they would target him. That’s why I had to find ways of shooting him without showing his face, but, of course, there’s no time to prepare for something like this. It all happens very fast, so I have to decide on the ground how to shoot it. So I just showed him with his hands with the gun and tried not to show his face.
What’s been the effect of the film? Have the people at Glock seen it, and has it had an impact back in Austria?
Whether it’s true or not, I’d like to credit the film with really breaking a taboo about talking about Glock in Austria, because it has been off the radar that Austria has been participating in the gun trade and exporting guns to war zones. That was a taboo [topic] to talk about in the last 35 years. When the film was released in Austrian cinemas at the end of September, it kind of broke this taboo, because everybody was reporting on this film, and there was a lot of follow-up and investigative reports by other media, who were, for example, looking into the connection between Glock and the far right party in Austria, the FPÖ, which is now in power. Two or three days ago the Austrian foreign minister was calling for an end to European gun exports to Saudi Arabia, which is unheard of. I have no way of telling if there is any connection between this and the film, but the fact that they are demanding this now is just for me really, really astonishing.
The film makes a very good case for why the Glock is so popular. Did you intend to do that? It seems to be an artefact that you can’t help but glamorize, because it’s good at its job – and it works every time.
That’s a very interesting question and it’s a question that has been following me the whole time when I was making the film. The question was: how do you make a film about a hyped-up object without fuelling the hype? This is a question where I don’t have a clear answer. I’m aware of this problem and I am trying to always keep this problem in mind. For me, it’s a very thin line, and when we were distributing the films in cinemas in Austria there was a lot of discussion. There was some criticism from people who said, “You know you are actually making the gun more famous,” and then, on the other side, people were [criticizing me for trashing] a successful Austrian company. Two completely different views on the same subject. I thought. “OK, maybe I got something right. Maybe I found the middle ground, and people can see things either way.”