News networks here in Europe including BBC and others have tepidly shared info and commentary on Herman van Rompuy, the recent Belgian prime minister who assumed the new position of President of the European Union, while Great Britain’s Baroness Catherine Ashton was named the body’s new Foreign Minister. Much of the continent seems to have given a collective yawn to the new appointments, with some asking why former British PM Tony Blair had not been the choice for the EU’s top position given his high profile. Euroskeptics and pro union supporters have squared off on BBC about the increasing centralization of the EU. Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, another world body – the United Nations – has stirred perhaps much more vibrant discussion in the wake of a screening here at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA).
Matthew Groff and Ami Horowitz’s doc “U.N. Me,” which had its world premiere here this weekend in the festival’s First Appearance Competition, is a full-scale indictment of the world body’s rampant corruption, ineptitude and downright perversity.
I have to admit, when I first read the film’s description, I was skeptical.
Hating the U.N. has long been a pet enemy of the far right in the United States and flashbacks to tired old diatribes about “creeping internationalism,” “loss of sovereignty,” “international socialism,” and those mysterious “black helicopters” instantly came to mind. I have heard about corruption at the U.N., and although any corruption is never acceptable, I assumed its extent was wildly exaggerated by American right-wingers who seem to think any engagement with the world community beyond the U.S. simply dictating the rules is tantamount to traitorship.
I have to say, this is one of those rare moments when a film seriously has challenged my personal view.
Attempting to detail all the examples and particulars of corruption covered by the film is impossible in one article, and a film about a remote peace keeping mission in a small African country – just one of the instances of wholesale failure covered in “U.N. Me” – on the surface may seem like a depressing bore. Yet, “U.N. Me” is surprisingly entertaining, employing Michael Moore-esque populist appeal in tackling a complex and not necessarily sexy topic as the U.N. Co-director Ami Horowitz goes in front of the camera, attempting to speak to officials.
In Cote d’Ivoire on Africa’s Atlantic coast, the world body sent peacekeepers (supplied by the country’s former colonial ruler, France) to stop a brewing civil conflict. Instead of going to the frontlines, troops were regularly seen patrolling the country’s beautiful beaches and massage parlors. The U.N. troops apparently stay away from the very hotspots they’re intended to patrol and instead head to brothels, according to the film. Horowitz tried repeatedly to meet with the U.N. official in charge of the mission, but was constantly thwarted. So, in a maneuver reminiscent of Moore’s “Roger and Me,” he pursues the official and eventually is granted an audience and peppers him with hard questions. In another scene from the film, he takes the microphone of the Human Rights Council, a body whose member states include Sudan, Iran, China, Syria and many of the world’s other frequent human rights violators.
“It’s an adrenaline rush,” co-director Matthew Groff told indieWIRE over the weekend in Amsterdam after their film premiered. “When they were detaining Ami, I was behind a window filming.” Both Groff and Horowitz made it clear that they don’t advocate for the U.N.’s dismantling, nor do they want the U.S. to leave the body, but they do call for a fundamental revision in how the institution operates.
“It has a split personality,” said Horowitz. “Self-preservation is one part of how it operates, and the other parts are much darker. The majority of states are not free democracies, and they are able to advance their policies by joining organizations like the Human Rights Council.”
In one particularly hilarious interview, Horowitz speaks with 1997 Nobel Peace Prize-winner, Jody Williams, a very fiery in your face personality who was chosen by the UNHRC to investigate the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Horowitz returned to the body with a scathing report against Sudan, which had (and has) clearly continued its reign of terror against its own citizens in its Western region. Her report faulted the regime, and said the situation had grown worse, which pinpointed structural and cultural problems about the U.N. Syria, China and other human rights violators faulted the report filed by Williams as “illegitimate.” She said she had been pressured by U.N. bureaucrats to water-down her report, but when she refused, members simply tried to fault it on its merits.
“What they were doing was self-preservation,” said Horowitz. “If they [fault] Sudan, then their own country’s may face investigation for their human rights violations.”
Horowitz, a former banker, told indieWIRE he became interested in the U.N. after reading about the genocide in Rwanda. He said that the organization had been created in part because of the Holocaust, “but why?” he asked, “could another genocide happen in the 1990s, or how could it be happening now in Sudan? I was like, what the fuck? Why are they here if they’re not stopping genocide?” Ami said that Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” inspired him to take on the subject. “I thought, Michael Moore has done a huge thing. We disagree on politics, but I have a huge respect for him – he’s tremendous.”
Groff and Horowitz worked with crew that has frequently worked with Michael Moore and the style is certainly apparent. Despite the constant exposure of the U.N.’s catastrophic failures, though, from the scandalous oil for food debacle which greatly enriched Saddam Hussein and his henchmen (with the U.N.’s tacit approval), disastrous peace-keeping missions and ubiquitous systemic failures, the film manages to be funny and engaging.
The filmmakers did give some credit to the institution’s ability to provide food aid and immunization and it its election monitoring in Cambodia for being mostly successful, but the directing duo view the U.N. as horrifically flawed. Still, they see hope in the U.N’s own founding documents and believe it can be rehabilitated.
“I think the U.N. Charter and the Declaration of Human Rights are the most beautiful declarations of the Twentieth Century,” said Horowitz. “But the U.N. has squandered what the world’s people have given it, but I do have hope that it’s fixable.”