Film Festival Film #4: Mission: Congo

My fourth TIFF film was a documentary called Mission: Congo. Its opening night was on Friday, but I caught it at its second showing on Saturday night. I caught it immediately after Bad Hair.

Mission: Congo kinda skewers US televangelist Pat Robertson and since the film’s premier a number of articles have been written in places like The Huffington Post, Indiewire, The Daily Beast, and The Guardian. In the Q&A, afterward, we learned that Robertson’s organization is considering legal action. That’s always fun.

So what’s the story? Apparently, according to the film, after the Rwandan massacre in 1994, Robertson created an organization called Operation Blessing to send medical supplies, doctors and other humanitarian aid to a Rwandan refugee camp in Goma (in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but which was then called Zaire). Because he has his own TV show, he also encouraged his viewers to donate to the organization to help the Rwandan refugees. “You bless them and God will bless you,” he says in one clip. (What was that bible quotation about “not of works, lest any man should boast?” Ah well, it’s probably not important.)

The situation in Goma was pretty awful — much like we see with Syrian refugee camps at the moment. Overnight, a half million people just suddenly showed up. To make things worse, Goma had suffered a volcanic eruption just prior to the refugee arrival, meaning that the ground was covered with volcanic rock, impeding the ability to dig latrines, or graves, or temporary buildings. MSF was already on-hand, but horribly over-stretched.

What the documentary spells out was that, at the same time, Pat Roberson created a for-profit organization called (if memory serves) the African Development Company (ADC), which obtained concessions for diamond mining in Kamonia, Zaire a good 800+ kilometres away from Goma. The film argues that many of the accomplishments that Robertson publicly hyped on the 700 Club as accomplishments of Operation Blessing were, in fact, related to ADC. For example, planes were purchased (purportedly to carry medical supplies), and a runway was constructed in Zaire to land the planes. The documentary shows segments of Robertson talking on the Christian Broadcast Network, showing off 5×7 photos of the newly-constructed runway. Except, surprise surprise, the runway was built near Kamonia, not Goma. Similarly, the planes were primarily moving mining equipment — dredges, fuel drums, Jeeps, four-wheelers — rather than aid equipment.

The film backs up its claims with a lot of interviews — with journalist Bill Sizemore, who wrote about the story at the time, with the chief pilot for Operation Blessing, with one of the miners he hired, with an operations director, and with MSF folks who were on the ground in Goma. It takes us to those locations. It talks about how shortly after this incident, Robertson argued that sanctions against Zaire president Mobutu should be lifted, and even shows photos and video clips (directly from the 700 Club airings) showing Robertson palling around with Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, allegedly while visiting the Operation Blessing site. Bagosora, of course, was a key figure in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and was later sentenced in The Hague to life imprisonment for his role in the massacre.

Virginia Sen. Janet Howell was involved in getting an investigation at the time, and although the Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs felt that there had been misrepresentations which were grounds for charges. Those charges never came. The Daily Beast summarizes this well:

According to the film, then Virginia Gov. James Gilmore had received a personal donation of $50,000 from Robertson, and the newly-instated Attorney General Mark Earley had also received a donation of $35,000 from Robertson for his 1997 election campaign, and was dependent on the influential conservative Christian’s support. Earley decided not to prosecute Robertson.

The case is fascinating, and seems well-supported. The interviews are good, and the film does a good job offering remedial African geography for the audience who might not know where some of these places are. As a film, though, there are oddities. The reveal about Robertson’s diamond mining, feels like it happens a good third of the way into the film — they really buried their lede. The ending also feels abrupt — more of a stopping than an ending, I think. Those minor things aside, the film is solid and well-edited. It’s never boring.

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