Here is Kenneth R. Morefield’s consideration of two more features from the Toronto International Film Festival. And my must-see list just keeps on growing…

Unwanted Witness


At The Edge of the World

One thing that I find interesting about being at a film festival, especially one the size of Toronto’s, is that the films inevitably end up commenting upon one another as one sees them in such close proximity.

Lorna’s Silence and Wendy and Lucy both deal with economies of poverty and the ways in which necessity either does or does not mitigate our moral choices. Because Three Monkeys and Cold Lunch both had characters bribe or pressure underlings to “take the rap” for car accidents, one could easily compare the cultures depicted in the films and their various attitudes towards justice (as one compares the penalties assessed for a similar transition). Still Walking and Afterwards both dealt with people coming to terms with death and preparing for its inevitability.

Perhaps nowhere was one of these fortuitous juxtapositions more thought provoking for me than in back to back screenings of the documentaries Unwanted Witness and At the Edge of the World. The first tells the story of Holman Morris, a Colombian telejournalist who braves death threats in order to challenge his government’s assertion that armed conflict is not prevalent in his country and to tell the stories of its victims. The second tells the story of Paul Watson, who left Greenpeace to found Sea Shepherd, an environmental interventionist group that runs pirate vessels attempting to disrupt Japanese whaling in the Antarctic region by hunting and damaging the whaling ships.

The audience in the screening of At the Edge of the World was decidedly pro-environmentalists. In fact, they gave Sea Shepherd captain Paul Watson a standing ovation when he was introduced after the film. Most of them presumably shared director Dan Stone’s thankfulness that there were people who were doing something in the face of environmental disaster. I was reminded of Al Gore’s riff at the end of An Inconvenient Truth about how frustrating it was to him that people often moved quickly from skepticism to cynicism or despair. Part of that despair comes from the very global nature of the problem that makes people feel impotent to effect change. Add to that an apparent scofflaw attitude on the part of Japanese whaling vessels (the film argues that they exploit a loophole in international treaties banning whaling by claiming that the killing is for research purposes) and it is easy enough to understand how the audience might be convinced that the Farley Mowat and the Robert Hunter have right on their side even if they are flying a pirate flag because no nation will recognize them.

Perhaps they do. I would certainly be hard pressed to argue against them, and I was happy enough to see their stink bombs land on the whaling ships and their ropes catch the propellers rendering the ships inoperable. But…

But what?

Well, it was hard to silence the critical voice in my head that wondered at the rhetoric used by the ships. It was not the rhetoric of morality or right (though the Sea Shepherd people clearly felt they had both on their side) but rather the rhetoric of law. The Japanese, they argued were violating international law and they were simply enforcing it. That no government recognized their authority to do so (and in fact even Greenpeace refused to share information about ship coordinates with them) may be ultimately of less importance than the preservation of an endangered species, but I’m not sure I would say it is irrelevant.

What does this have to do with Unwanted Witness? In that film, despite some early confusion regarding the role of the Columbian national army, the directors (and reporter Morris) report that the majority of the killings taking place are being done not necessarily by the military but by the “paramilitary.” In other words, much of the fighting with and against guerrilla forces (or villages and homes the purportedly protect or shelter the guerrillas) is being done by privately funded military units that are not beholden to the rule of law or ultimately answerable to the federal government. If I followed the argument of the film correctly (one of its weaknesses as a documentary was its inability to frame the conflict within the film so that audiences not current with South American politics would understand the relationship between the parties) the federal government turns a blind eye towards paramilitary violence against the citizenry (and denounce Morris for reporting it) because it wants to claim to urban populations that there is no systemic conflict in the country and, perhaps, because it is too weak to fight and eradicate a guerrilla force that refuses to give up on cocoa planting.

It is a cliché of democratic political science that people who are willing to give up freedom for safety will ultimately have neither. In Rober Bolt’s famous play A Man For All Seasons, Sir Thomas More chastises his soon to be son-in-law for claiming that he is willing to give up the rule of law to serve some higher goal or merely for greater self-preservation. When Roper says he would cut down every law there is to get to the devil, More’s famously replies:

“Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!”

Protecting ourselves from armed and violent drug cartels who resist the eradication of their drug crops seems like a worthy goal. The protection of our endangered species is surely more urgent and important than being invested with authority by a (or any) legally elected democratic government that supposedly represents the people, isn’t it? “If the oceans die, we die,” Paul Hunter said in an audience question and answer session. If someone is threatening to kill you (by killing the ocean and destroying the environment you need to survive), you aren‚Äôt supposed to just let them are you? They want to kill us, an American vice-presidential candidate recently said about Islamic terrorists and [members of the other political party] care about whether or not we‚Äôve read them their rights!

Well, yes, I do care. Because if the witness of history in general and Columbia specifically is to be heard, once you start cutting down those laws, it’s hard to stop. And it becomes easier and easier to apply the argument that one is acting proactively in self-defense as a means for exercising your will against a greater and greater scope of behavior. That paramilitary power somehow seems more prone to abuse, even if it is founded and started with good intentions, certainly seems supported by global politics. I found it ironic and even a bit troubling that the audience that applauded Sea Shepherd’s logic was just as clearly anti-American military involvement in Iraq, and honestly apparently saw no connection between Sea Shepherd’s proactive self defense argument and George W. Bush’s. I’m not stating that an argument or a distinction between these actions cannot be made, only that it was disturbing that some of the pro-environmentalist audience didn‚Äôt seem willing or capable of making it‚Äîor acted as though the distinction was obvious and self-evident and therefore they needn‚Äôt be bothered.

In other words, there is a smugness, an arrogance, that belongs to certainty of all political stripes, left and right, militaristic or environmental. At one point in the film, the crew on the bridge of The Robert Hunter is trying to determine whether or not a ship they are hailing is a legitimate research vessel or a whaling ship that they will attack. When the other ship moves away from them, one member of the crew opines that they must be doing something wrong, because if they weren’t, why would they run?

Umm, because you’re a pirate ship, maybe?

There is a famous scene in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick where the aptly named Rachel hails Captain Ahab on the Pequod and asks for his assistance in finding sailors overboard who had been in a small skiff wrecked by the whale. Ahab refuses to assist them in their search because he is on the heels of the white whale and doesn’t want his prey to elude him. It is a classic — perhaps the classic — representation of the clouding effects of obsession on one’s moral vision. In At the Edge of the World there is a scene in which two of the crew members become lost in a small quick boat called a zodiac. The captain of the Robert Hunter offers to peel off their pursuit to help look for the missing crew members. (If their zodiac is taking on water or has tipped, a difference of minutes or hours in the arctic water could mean the difference between life and death.) Watson instructs the Robert Hunter to stay in pursuit of the Japanese whaling vessel. What is presented in Moby Dick as an act of horrific moral blindness is applauded in At the Edge of the World as a noble act of moral righteousness.

Except for its probably not right to say ‚”in” the film, because director Paul Stone made it clear that Sea Shepherd did not have final cut over the film and, while the Toronto audience appeared to have little or no reservations about the ships’ righteousness, the film actually is careful to let the environmentalists speak for themselves without necessarily apologizing for them. It does, for instance, show the Japanese ship that they are hunting respond (as they are required to do under international law) to a “May Day” call put out by the Robert Hunter. Once the crew members are found, the Sea Shepherd vessels essentially send a message to the Japanese boat that essentially says, hey, thanks for helping us look for our missing men, we found them and we’re back to trying to cripple your boat now. Perhaps the most disturbing elision in the film comes when news reports say that one of the Japanese vehicles they were pursuing and trying to sabotage had caught fire, threatening to leak oil into the ocean and create an even greater environmental disaster than the one they were trying to prevent. The captain does make a point of telling the crew (and the filmmakers) that it is being reported that the fire has been caused by a flaw in port and not by the ramming or sabotage of one of Sea Shepherd vehicles, but for a scant moment the specter of unexpected consequences rears its ugly head, revealing another hidden danger in combining moral smugness with autonomous power.

So if At the End of the World was the better film for trusting the audience to see and process complexity, Unwanted Witness at least had the better audience for bringing a more critical (or at least discerning) attitude to the subject matter than did the film‚Äôs makers. Was it fair, one audience member asked, that Morris criticized the government for reducing its protection for his family in the wake of death threats while chiding villagers who received no protection (from guerrillas or the paramilitary) for not wanting to go on camera and perhaps endangering their own? Does acknowledging that there is violence on both sides make a film fair if it concentrates too heavily on only one? Was the film’s conflation of the government and the paramilitary intentional or just sloppy? At one point early in the film it highlights a television recruiting commercial for the national army but then shifts to talking about the atrocities perpetrated by the paramilitary. It seems likely to me, given comments I overheard at and after the audience Q&A that at least some American viewers will leave the film with the impression that it is that national military perpetrating all or most of the atrocities, an impression that, given Morris’s clearly angry feelings towards his president and government, the film seemed unconcerned about correcting. I’m sympathetic to the argument that most Americans don’t want complexity, but it seems to me that there’s more to being truthful in journalism than just being pedantically accurate and that perhaps a bit more time spent educating the audience about the situation rather than telling it what to think about the situation may have served the film well.

I lived in Bogota, Columbia from three years from 1976-1978. It grieves me that the country I lived in and remember fondly is now among the most dangerous places in the world and one that I could not go back to even visit today. Every day, it seems, the world is becoming a smaller, more dangerous place. I wish someone would stop wringing their hands and, you know, do something before it’s too late.

Or do I?

My Grades:
Unwanted Witness: C
At the Edge of the World: A

Kenneth R. Morefield is an Assistant Professor of English at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina.