Congo’s slave trade, Nokia and Frank Piasecki Poulson’s documentary Blood in the Mobile: A review – By Georgina Holmes
The United Nations (UN) and the international electronics industry have known since 2001 that the illegal mining of tungsten, cassiterite and coltan, used to make computers, games and mobile phones, has fuelled conflict in the east of Congo. Since the first war began in 1997 an estimated 5 million people have died of either direct or indirect consequences of multiple and overlapping wars, but the number of people who have died in Congo’s militarised mining economy remains unknown. Consumer awareness of the link between electronic devises and the exploitation of Congolese men, women and children working in local mines is almost non-existence – even among more informed consumers who recognise that militaries in Congo profit from illicit mining trade. The challenge of filming abuse and exploitation in isolated and dangerous regions where militia groups operate without impunity has in small part contributed to the lack of public awareness.
Danish filmmaker Frank Piasecki Poulson overcomes these barriers to present the dark side of the mobile communications industry and the harrowing reality of Congo’s mines in his documentary Blood in the Mobile (2010). Positioning himself as a consumer and loyal customer of Finnish-owned mobile phone company Nokia, Poulson asks “˜is there blood in my mobile?’ Nokia, who Poulson discovers had been a rubber manufacturer in the era of Belgian King Leopold’s violent reign over Congo (1885-1908), refuse to engage with him, leading Poulson to become suspicious that the company has something to hide.
In search of answers, Poulson embarks on a journey to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in August 2009 “˜to see where these minerals are coming from and to see with my own eyes if they are financing war’. Poulson hears that one of the largest illegal cassiterite mines, Bisie, is located in the Walikali region where just one week earlier, the Congolese army’s 85th Brigade, in charge of the mine, had defected and are now operating independently. Refused transport by the UN who declare Walikali a no-go area, Poulson realises he must play the corrupt Congolese system if he is to reach his destination, pandering to the egos of government and military officials to obtain travel permits. In a Walikali village, Poulson meets sixteen year old Chance who had worked in the mines for three years, lured by the false promise of earning enough money to buy his own house, before escaping during the recent fighting and returning to education. Under the consent of his mother, Chance agrees to take Poulson back to Bisie.
Once in the mining compound, Poulson discovers the extent of the human exploitation and poverty. Artisanal miners must pay to get into the compound but are taxed so much they cannot afford to leave. With between 15,000-25,000 artisanal miners and carriers, the compound is a shanty town maze of small stores and makeshift dwellings and the inhabitants bring home the reality of what the recent fighting means for them – the pharmacist and the police commander had both been killed. Poulson gets Chance to descend into the claustrophobic 100 foot mine to film malnourished miners at work. This footage is the most harrowing and eerily echoes images of King Leopold’s Red Rubber slave trade. It is in these scenes that Poulson’s observational documentary is most impacting.
A reflective plane ride lands Poulson back in Europe where he again picks up his lobbying, going to speak with Nokia representatives. Their answers do not satisfy Poulson’s questions, so he turns to campaign groups Global Witness and US-based Enough, European scientists and US politician Jim McDermott, initiator of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, to find out what can be done to overhaul the international mining industry and ensure corporations such as Nokia use responsible mineral suppliers.
Poulson has been applauded for his bravery in enabling such a dramatic exposé of Congo’s mines, yet the impact of his film is diluted at times by his less than skilful documentary film making: the narrative is extremely simple and an investigation into the process of turning Congo’s minerals into components for electronics goods could have provided more nuance. Ethical concerns are also raised regarding the treatment of Chance, who received verbal abuse from miners objecting to his filming them without their permission. We have no knowledge of what happened to Chance or confirmation that he returned safely to his village. Perhaps Poulson should have explained this process in the film, rather than implying a European filmmaker was taking the footage.[i] In keeping with the simple narrative, Pouslon frames conflict as “˜civil war’. This obscures the complexity of DRC politics as well as the wider Great Lakes region – although descriptions provided by geologists and military men during Poulson’s time in the DRC do reveal the dynamic nature of the militarised mining economy. Some critics have questioned why Poulson chose to target Nokia specifically, while Nokia argues that it has been unfairly represented. Poulson himself believes the documentary would have been a much better film had Nokia agreed to let him follow them to their meetings at industry level and record how they were trying to persuade other electronic producers.[ii] Finally, the voices of Congolese people are not as pronounced as they could have been and it would have been worthwhile Poulson consulting Congolese in his search for solutions which might lead to the regulation of the DRC’s mining industry. This question is reserved for “˜western’ scientists, campaigners and politicians.
That saying, Blood in the Mobile is in some respects more than an investigative documentary film. Having completed the rounds of the international film festivals, Blood in the Mobile went on general release in the UK on 21 October 2011 and is already generating public interest. Following in the footsteps of other activist documentaries such as Black Gold (2007), the Blood in the Mobile website offers further campaign information including a draft letter to send to respective Members of Parliament in the UK.
Blood in the Mobile is a campaign tool and it appears Poulson has chosen to adopt what has been termed by documentary film theorist David Whiteman as the “˜coalition model’, whereby “˜filmmakers, film screeners, audiences and political actors cooperate in order to increase the efficacy of grassroots political action,’ by-passing conventional media gatekeepers to reach wide ranging audiences.[iii] In this context, the documentary becomes a common ground shared by activists, women’s rights groups, anti-capitalists, Congolese political groups and other interested parties.
In Blood in the Mobile, Poulson appears to undergo a process of personal transformation – from “˜naive consumer’, to witness of atrocities, to consumer-activist working in conjunction with campaigners and it seems Poulson welcomes viewers to join him in this journey. This, surely, must be his film’s greatest message to us all.
Blood in the Mobile will be shown at Film-Africa 2011, Mon 7th November, 8pm, Hackney Picture House
Georgina Holmes is a member of the African Research Group, Department of War Studies, King’s College London
[i] See CinePolitics, 24 September 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTNaQZ02BKc&noredirect=1, accessed 25 October 2011
[iii] Whiteman, D (2004) in Christensen (2009) “˜Political documentary, online organisation and activist synergies’ in Studies in Documentary Film 3:2 pp77-94