Monday, January 19, 2009

The Munificent Munitions Industry: DEALING & WHEELING IN SMALL ARMS debuts at AFA

At the beginning of Sander Francken's 90-odd-minute documentary, DEALING AND WHEELING IN SMALL ARMS, "narrator" Vanessa Redgrave tells us that some eight million small arms are confiscated and destroyed each year, while another 100 million are produced during this same period. At the end of the film, her voice returns to tell us these same facts again, along with a few other statistics. And that is all we hear of Ms Redgrave's rounded tones.

This wouldn't matter much if the movie at hand were more interesting and/or fulfilling, but it is mostly dull as dishwater and tells us little we don't already know or couldn't easily figure out. Yes, these small arms do or have done unimaginable damage to countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere around the world. (Arms from one particular shipment, we learn, managed to take out Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, an Irish drug dealer and a Spanish politician -- among others.) Francken travels to the U.S., the Congo, Uganda, Serbia, Bosnia, The Netherlands and Germany, talking with gun experts, security people, survivors of various massacres, and more. And although the survivors' stories are upsetting, we've heard/read/seen much of this already, and too often the conversation runs to unenlightening questions and answers like this one, asked of a policeman on a patrol boat: "Do you think guns and arms make their way across the water?" "Maybe. I don't know," comes the response.

If you are a tad offput by the placement of the words in the title Dealing and Wheeling in Small Arms (Isn't it "wheeling and dealing"? You call someone a "wheeler-dealer," rather than the other way around), you will not be surprised to learn that the organization of the film is also skewed. Scenes begin and end abruptly and are returned to later for little apparent reason. The director also intercuts violent video games into the proceedings. We get it. The most upsetting section of the documentary takes place in a rehab center for children who have been fighters and killers in African youth-recruited armies. Now they play games with fake guns and machetes which involve killing their playmates.

The rules set up for policing arms sales around the world, country by country, the documentary explains, were often written post WWII and are now out of date in terms of how quickly current deals take place and how many different people and countries are involved. New and better laws are needed, but whether any of this is happening or how it might come to pass, we are not told. At the end, when an African father notes than losing a gun is more important than losing a child because the gun can protect the rest of the family, it's hard not to half-way agree. I don't think this is the moral Mr. Francken wants us to take away from his film.

Dealing and Wheeling in Small Arms begin a week-long run Wednesday, January 21, at Anthology Film Archives.

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