London, Nov. 9 (Reuters): A new Hollywood film that shows aid workers gun-running for the CIA has been condemned for potentially endangering relief staff and their reputation at a time when humanitarian agencies are being targeted in Iraq.
Action-romance Beyond Borders stars Angelina Jolie as an American socialite who pursues a charismatic British aid doctor, played by Clive Owen, through a decade or more of disasters, from famine in Ethiopia to war in Chechnya.
Critics say the fictional story line, in which the doctor’s NGO gets involved in weapons dealing for the US Central Intelligence Agency, could encourage extremist attacks on aid workers in hotspots such as Baghdad, where suicide bombers last month targeted the Red Cross headquarters.
They also object to claims that the UN has effectively endorsed a film that could damage the reputation of NGOs, discourage donations and put their staff at risk.
“The film advertises itself as a serious almost-documentary dedicated to the spirit of overseas aid workers,” said veteran aid worker Steve Hansch, who advised the film makers in the early stages of production.
“By popularising an image of aid agencies working under instructions from the CIA, Beyond Borders may torpedo their real work in the field. If widely seen, Beyond Borders is likely to endanger the lives of real aid workers in real aid operations.”
Hansch, a researcher at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration in Washington, slammed the film’s depiction of Ethiopians, Chechens and Cambodians as either passive “victims” dependent on their “white-skinned saviours” or brutal but incompetent warlords.
He also took issue with the portrayal of disaster relief.
“For dramatic effect, Beyond Borders portrays aid work as hopeless: well-intentioned but futile, with no resulting impact, no return on investment,” he said. “In reality, humanitarian aid saves tens of thousands of lives.”
But Hansch said the film was accurate in much of its detail, from its depiction of feeding centres, immunisation programmes and well-drilling to the administrative burden facing many aid operations.
“Also accurate is the point that in most of the world’s hundreds of humanitarian emergencies, there is far too little funding to meet the most minimum standards of support needed to prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths.”
Hansch’s final verdict: “It was a squandered opportunity… It could have been a really positive movie about real aid work.”
The film has not been a box office hit since its US release last month and reviewers have been lukewarm to harsh.
Sandra Mitchell, the International Rescue Committee’s vice president for government relations and advocacy, called the character of the doctor a “humanitarian cowboy”.
“We don’t run guns,” she said. “There are clear principles and guidelines. We’re very determined about our standards.”
Most humanitarian agencies take great pains to stress their neutrality, impartiality and independence, and are keen not to be tarred by the same brush when accusations of misconduct arise against other NGOs.
For actress Jolie, who rose to stardom as video game character Lara Croft in two Tomb Raider films, life and art have merged.
In addition to playing a fictional aid worker in Beyond Borders, in real life she is goodwill ambassador for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Since becoming goodwill ambassador in 2001, she has visited refugee camps in places as far-flung as Congo, Kosovo, Sri Lanka and Ecuador. UNICEF estimates Jolie’s contributions to the agency at about $3 million in cash and kind.
The UN has come under fire for implicitly endorsing the film, and thus its fictional depiction of NGOs, because UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers attended the premiere in New York.
According to The Washington Times, director Martin Campbell said of Annan: “He seemed enthusiastic about it and certainly gave us the thumbs-up.”
The paper also quoted Campbell as saying the Beyond Borders script “was sent to the UN for approval; portions were altered based on the organisation's input”.
The UN refugee agency said it had merely been sent an early outline as part of a request for statistics on refugees, and had not offered any comment or approval.
“It’s a movie, it’s a Hollywood fiction, it never pretended to be a documentary,” a UNHCR spokesperson told AlertNet, a Reuters Foundation website for international disaster relief. “It was not a collaboration with UNHCR. It’s not even about humanitarian action. It’s a love story.
“The whole context of humanitarian aid workers is largely unknown to the general public. If the film gives the public a better idea of the tough challenges involved, perhaps that’s all to the good.”
A spokesperson for film distributor Pathe declined to comment. The movie is now on worldwide cinema release.