HARRY WISE takes a look ‘Shadow World’, a documentary revealing the murky world of the international arms trade.

‘Politicians are just like prostitutes, except they cost more money’, says one European arms dealer in a new documentary by Johan Grimonprez. Shadow World is the film adaptation of a 2011 book by Andrew Feinstein, a African National Congress (ANC) member of parliament and anti-arms trade campaigner. Back in 2001, Feinstein resigned from the ANC to protest the corruption circumventing an arms deal made between the South African government and BAE Systems – a British multinational defence, security and aerospace company.

The deal was immensely controversial, notably because South Africa is a developing country with limited public expenditure. The cost of the project, as the documentary explains, was enough to provide 650,000 South Africans with life-saving anti-retroviral drugs. Instead, senior politicians were paid bribes to spend public money on fatuous white elephants.

This example is merely the tip of the iceberg in a polemic that exposes the magnitude of corruption in the business of trading God’s instruments of death. Shadow World is anger and rage interspersed with moments of bittersweet humour. It does not reveal anything new about the arms industry that we cannot make a guess at. Rather, it is a reminder of the crooked lengths politicians will go to to satisfy their relationships with arms companies, and most of all their insatiable greed.

We, at least the lefty-liberal Guardian types among us, all have the vague awareness that we buy Middle Eastern oil and sell arms in return. In a better world where humans are not nearly as selfish, we would probably rather not. Yet to end the practice could result in a severely damaged economy, an alternative that leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many. Just as we treat heroin addicts by giving them shots of pure heroine in decreasing amounts, change must occur by small increments: going cold turkey does not seem viable.

Image courtesy of encounters.co.za
Image courtesy of encounters.co.za

Though Shadow World conveys an important message, it is one we have heard before. To be told once again that Saudi Arabia, Tony Blair and the American military-industrial complex do not feel an ounce of guilt when fuelling the arms trade – that the ‘shadow world’ of arms companies and politicians has sinned beyond reprieve – no longer holds the power to stun. It is not excessively challenging to detail the evils of this trade: it is more difficult, yet infinitely more effective, to provide concrete solutions that gradually reach the end goal of eradicating these problems.

Despite its stance against the arms trade, Shadow World did not do enough to rally for activists to join the anti-arms trade campaign. Lacking in humour to lighten its tone, Shadow World remains a piece that does more to criticise and point fingers than to fix and solve. Comparative documentaries Bowling for Columbine or Lord of War actually told more about the trade, and in an more amusing (thus engaging) and cogent fashion. While Lord of War elucidates how innocent civilians could be harmed in the international trading of bullets and bombs, Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine also reveals how a proliferation of ‘gun culture’ could hurt the people involved in the trade itself. Shadow World provided less information in comparison: the piece might have been better suited for a special Wednesday night edition of BBC’s Panorama.

Image courtesy of indiewire.com
Image courtesy of indiewire.com

Considering the insufficient level of action that has been put in process to fight the arms trade thus far, we have a long, long, long way to go. Even getting the message across is not nearly half of the battle: ‘I used to campaign against the arms trade’ says a guy I met by chance at a student bar, ‘It’s amazing, because now I am employed by the BAE’. The anger that Shadow World conveyed may not be enough for people to ‘get the point’, just as bankers who saw Wall Street remain obfuscated as to what the problem was. This is not to deny the role that films like this undoubtedly do have in making sure the conversations about certain issues are brought back to the forefront of peoples’ minds, and Shadow World is a valiant effort to kickstart action. Leaving the screening, leaflets from Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) were handed out with words of encouragement to join the campaign. However, it has come to a point where films, documentaries and other media need to convey much more than just their stance if we are ever to begin dealing with an issue of such magnitude.

‘Shadow World’ premiered on 17th September at Bertha DocHouse. More information can be found here

CategoriesFilm Harry Wise