Conflict in Film

Saturday, December 27, 2008

With the perpetually busy lives of Americans, it would seem a lot to ask to sit down in front of the silver screen for two hours or more, but we do. And what movies do we watch?

Sure many are purely for entertainment purposes, to bring us out of our tedious lives and into a fanciful world where the hero is victorious and the vanquished see justice. But many blockbuster hits of late have portrayed the world as it is, violence and corruption and all. And this is to John Q public who may be oceans away from conflicts-- who may not have the patience to read policy papers or textbooks, but still craves truth that can be found beyond the 24-hour news cycle. Movies like Blood Diamond, Hotel Rwanda, Jarhead, Body of Lies, or Traitor have had such success that it would seem Americans use film for other purposes than simply entertainment—maybe film can be used as entertaining education.

I’ll grant that film isn’t always the best educator. Even when depicting real events, it is still a subjective portrayal, with changes in characters and timing to make the two hours as action-packed as possible. But film may have a different type of education—it may show an emotional history, and quite possibly find a deeper truth than any documentary can uncover.

So seeing the entertainment value of international conflicts, how may film be used to help end, or at least understand conflict? Can it even be used? Many terrorist organizations use music videos and short films to recruit martyrs and send a message of hate and violence by using the high emotions and energy of youth against them. But might it be possible for peaceful organizations to send their message of tolerance and understanding through film as well?

I have always been amazed by the beauty of moments in film that lend a real understanding through fictional characters. For example in Kingdom of Heaven, the main character, Balian (a Christian), listens to the translation of a Muslim prayer and states that they sound curiously like his own. Or in a similarly named, but more recent movie The Kingdom, a deeper truth in the conflict between the Western and Arab world is revealed at the end—- both sides have lost loved ones and vow to kill all the perpetrators of these atrocities, demonstrating that in a war where no one is completely innocent, we might be more similar than we believe.

Another, very recent, release Waltz with Bashir, for example, which depicts the experiences of a few Israeli soldiers during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, might lend understanding to a small part of an ongoing war, in an area of the world which is now experiencing the violent effects of continued misunderstanding and hatred.

Given the lag time between an event occurring and the possibility of portraying that event through film, it cannot be used as an everyday policy tool. But in ongoing conflicts with frequent uprisings, it might be useful to teach a younger generation (that makes up a majority of the population in developing countries, especially the Middle East) the emotional taxations of both sides, the misunderstandings that led to a semi-constant state of war or even reveal the tools that could lead to an ultimate peace


Modern-day piracy

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Here’s a situation I’m not even sure how to begin approaching—piracy off the coast of Somalia. What could be done? Where can we even start? This royal mess includes gangs of pirate ships hijacking at ever-increasing rates for ever-increasing ransom amounts. This is all fueled by the lack of any legitimate, sustained government in-land, and a non-existent economy, only to be replaced by a new type of economy catering specifically to the pirating industry.

This country is a place where sending anyone, from a New York Times journalist to a UN peacekeeper, is virtually a death sentence. Lawlessness has prevailed and piracy has become almost a normal means for getting ahead in life (BBC). The sad part is that this may even be expected in a “post-failed state” facing such a proliferation of fighting and famine that the “getting ahead in life” plans are few and far between—you either struggle in poverty as a victim, or struggle in wealth as the perpetrator. Why work for almost non-existent wages with government security forces when you can gain a fortune out at sea?

Any hope for peaceful solutions has walked the plank, pushed by ex-fisherman, ex-militiamen and "technical" experts who have convened in 10 gangs (there was only one in 2005) that plague the Gulf of Aden (one of the world’s busiest shipping ways), searching for the highest ransom (Maclean’s). And considering the ransoms have grown to an estimated $25 to $30 million this year, the practice is highly lucrative (NYT). This may be the reason why eight ships have been hijacked in the past two weeks, adding to the 92 ships already taken this year alone (NYT).

Under these circumstances, where the situation is volatile both on land and at sea (the two areas feeding off each other like sharks), where do we begin to promote conflict resolution and peace? What’s more, how do we stop this practice from being spread to other regions as they see evidence of high-value work?


Gatehouse, Jonathon. “Blackbeard Still Lives.” Maclean’s 121(41) 20 October 2008: p38-40.

Hunter, Robyn. “Somali pirates living the high life.” BBC News online:

Kumar, Hari and Alan Cowell. “Indian Navy Tells of Sinking Pirate Ship.” The New York Times Online, 20 November 2008:


The Greater Threat

Monday, October 13, 2008

During the Vice-Presidential debates a question was asked about Iran and Pakistan—which country poses a greater threat to the new administration? Putting aside the vice-presidential candidate’s answers (since CSI is a non-partisan organization) I wanted to discuss this question since it’s been on my mind now for a few weeks.

First of all, can we compare the two? If we’re talking about Iran, I’m assuming the threat would be coming from their possible development of nuclear technology for WMDs (though they need the nuclear technology for Iranian citizens, and are entitled to it under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, if and only if they allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to enter the country and inspect at will. So far they have not cooperated with inspectors, so they don’t get help with nuclear technology). In Pakistan, it is assumed that the threat comes from multiple sources—the Taliban fighting and growing stronger in the tribal regions, al-Qaeda also finding safe-houses, a new President that hasn’t established a strong rule yet and all of the terrifying instability that emanates from a fragmented government with nuclear capabilities. I recently heard Pakistan called “not a country, but an army”—they are unstable and difficult to handle.

So now which produces the greater threat? In Pakistan, this new unbalanced administration is in charge of a country full of terrorist safe-houses. This poses a major short-term threat not only to the people of Pakistan, but to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan—most all U.S. supplies to troops in Afghanistan go through Pakistan. Recently the U.S. decided to cross the borders of Pakistan without permission from Islamabad so Special Forces could carry out attacks on known terrorist hiding areas. Who knows how this will affect the way the new president is seen to his people, or the actions that the Pakistani military or intelligence organizations choose to take?

But Iran poses a greater long-term threat if something isn’t done now. I don’t mean the military option. Let me repeat that—we should NOT, can NOT invade Iran. We need to increase our diplomatic relations with the country and do whatever we can to foster the growing youth democratic movement there—whether that is done by involving ourselves in local Iranian politics or simply staying away, whatever works. True, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is relatively nuts and frequently spouts off something-or-other about destroying Israel, but he technically has no decision making power in the country—he is more a spokesman than anything else. But whoever has the decision making power is enjoying a healthy growing relative power in the region. It is dangerous to ignore this.

So I’m curious. What do you think? Which poses a greater threat to U.S. interests, if a threat at all?


Cuban embargo

Thursday, September 25, 2008

For almost 50 years the United States has continued its trade embargo against Cuba, stepping up to even more strict regulations within the past 10 years, like increased financial sanctions that isolate Cuba from the international trading community. With the devastation of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, many in Cuba and around the world are again raising their voices in protest to the persistence of the blockade. After the natural disaster, the U.S. offered direct aid to the island, but still refuses to lift the embargo that Cuban Foreign Minister Felips PĂ©rez Roque estimated has cost Cuba at least $222 billion (“Near-unanimous vote at UN”). Calls to end the blockade may be heard louder as the Cuban Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura participates in the 63rd convention of the United Nations General Assembly this week in New York (though it is unlikely to make headlines in the U.S. while the Presidential campaign and the current financial crisis blanket news pages across the country).

Looking beyond the protestations of Cuba herself, more than 180 members of the United Nations voted to condemn the embargo in 2007. This issue has been raised religiously for the past 16 years, and every vote ends with a majority decision against the blockade. So what is the U.S. still holding on for? Are politicians trying not to lose face in the international community for giving in to such a small nation?

Having formed the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba in 2003, it would seem the U.S. government has held tight to this embargo for so many years because it wishes to see the administration in Cuba change to a democracy. But is this an efficient way to do so? When an embargo is placed on a country, who is hurt? And who do they blame for their suffering?


Partlow, Joshua. “Hurricanes Shift Debate on Embargo Against Cuba.” Washington Post Foreign Service, 24 September 2008, .

Van Auken, Bill. “Near-Unanimous vote at UN to repudiate US blockade of Cuba” World Socialist Web Site, 1 November 2007


Crossing Pakistani Borders

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Recently the U.S. military began sending Special Operations ground troops into Pakistani borders without permission from Islamabad. The first of such attacks happened when they landed by helicopter within the borders of Afghanistan on September 3rd, crossed into Pakistan and attacked Taliban and al-Qaeda targets. In these tribal areas there are hideouts and safe-houses where members of either terrorist organization could be planning attacks, either within that region or outside. This would seem to fall directly under the mission of the U.S. military in the War on Terror. However, attacking without permission—from the Pakistani military, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency or the new President Asif Ali Zardari—may end up being counter-productive. Here are some issues to think about and discuss:

1) The people of Pakistan, like those in most every other country, have a great enthusiasm for keeping their territorial integrity, and are understandably upset by U.S. incursions into their borders. Up until now they have been called an ally in the war on terror, albeit an unstable and ineffective ally. Through the years of fighting since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, terrorists have been able to cross the borders into Pakistan to find safe-havens and supplies, which has been detrimental to U.S. efforts in the region. It seems logical that the U.S. military should now follow them across the border to target known terrorist areas specifically. But crossing that border complicates the matter greatly. What authority does the U.S. have to do this? In a New York Times article by Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti, it was stated that an American official said “the Pakistani government had privately assented to the general concept of limited ground assaults by Special Operations forces against significant militant targets, but that it did not approve each mission" (“Bush Said to Give Orders Allowing Raids in Pakistan”). Is this enough?

2) With the new president, and his apparent good relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a window of opportunity was opened for improved diplomatic relations among the two presidents and the U.S. But that window could quickly close if the U.S. goes too far in outraging the Pakistani population (they already aren’t too fond of us). Both Karzai and Zardari have to walk a fine line between good relations with the U.S. and seeming like a puppet for Western powers to their own people. I’m sure hearing news that U.S. soldiers killed civilians in their area is making it difficult for them to keep good relations with Washington.

3) It is extremely difficult for U.S. soldiers to fight in civilian areas while then enemy hides out in their villages and in their homes, wearing similar clothes. This has been a big issue in Iraq as well. So who is morally at fault when civilians die in these attacks? The terrorists who hide behind these women and children, or the soldiers who are trying to do their jobs while also protecting themselves and the lives of their fellow soldiers? And if it is wrong to attack in tribal areas where civilians may be in danger, what do we do instead? The U.S. military knows where the enemy is. One New York Times article stated that U.S. special Operations forces killed “about two dozen suspected Qaeda fighters” (“Bush Said to Give Orders Allowing Raids in Pakistan”). So how can we expect our military men and women to stand back and wait for permission that may come too late, while they know the location of an enemy most of them joined the military to fight?

News Article:

Schmitt, Eric and Mark Mazzetti. “Bush Said to Give Orders Allowing Raids in Pakistan.” New York Times Online, 11 September 2008:


Georgia and the 'new Cold War'

Thursday, September 4, 2008

When Russian forces moved across Georgian borders August 7th of this year, it was easy for many in the West to jump to the conclusion that Russia was the “bad” guy and Georgia was the “good” guy. Zip, bang, boom, put it in the headline. But in the weeks since, the lines between the aggressor and the victim have been blurred.

Moscow accused Tbilisi of “genocide”. Tbilisi accused Moscow of “ethnic cleansing.” And since Russia’s acknowledgement of the independent status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the borders that Russia crossed and their motivations for taking these actions have been muddled into a gray area. The international community joins Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in renouncing Russia’s action, but it was reported that the power structures of the already semi-autonomous regions actually thanked Russian President Dmitri Medvedev for his help and recognition. It could be said that Saakashvili moved his troops into the region first, and in his attempt to take them back under full control of his administration, he provoked Russia into a defensive response to protect the large number of Russian citizens that reside in the regions. But then Russia’s response has been called a “disproportionate reaction” by European leaders who met earlier this week to discuss possible sanctions (BBC News article, “EU suspends talks on Russia Pact”). The European Union ultimately decided against sanctions but threatened to delay talks on a new partnership agreement if Moscow doesn’t remove its troops from Georgian territory. This lack of sanctions has given Russia one reason to be happy, but they are still alone in their recognition of the break-away regions as independent entities and have furthered their international isolation with provocative comments like Medvedev’s recent description of Saakashvili as a “political corpse” (BBC News article, “Saakashvili a ‘political corpse’”).

Now, I won’t debate here whether the sovereignty of a country, or its right to an independent existence, is reliant on the recognition of one other nation alone, or whether an agreement needs to be reached among a majority of UN members, or whether de facto control over a territory is enough. The entire issue of the human right to self-determination is complex and would require much more space for debate. But I would like to discuss one issue I find interesting in the political discussion of the crisis as it is portrayed in the media.

In a September 2nd article from the BBC, Medvedev brought to light U.S. involvement in the crisis. Though the U.S. has sent no troops, nor imposed any sanctions, President Bush’s support of Saakashvili would seem enough for Russia to accuse Washington of provoking the crisis. Medvedev may be just flexing his muscles now in an attempt to prove that his strength matches that of his predecessor, Vladimir Putin. But with such direct jabs at the West that have become fairly regular, especially since the U.S. finally locked the agreement with Poland to place anti-missile defense systems in their borders, many have considered the idea of a “new Cold War.” But what does that mean, really? What would a new Cold War entail? And shouldn’t we give it a new name? Granted, Prime Minister Putin is ex-KGB, but Russia is not the Soviet Union. Medvedev hasn’t proved himself to be Stalin. He doesn’t seem to be Mahatma Gandhi either, but it must difficult to be the successor of a man like Putin, a leader who is revered in Russia as the one who brought the country back from the dead and into her own.

Looking specifically at the conflict in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, I can understand why so many would question the reemergence of the Cold War. If we defined that time by the actions of two major powers who prodded each other politically by using other, perhaps smaller or lesser developed nations for their battlefields, then this example might be perfect. The possibility is open that Russia’s actions in Georgia was partially backlash from the Western recognition of the Serbian break-away region of Kosovo in February, making Kosovo and Georgia the proxy wars of the new millennium.

I’m sure it also doesn’t help that Saakashvili seems to be egging on this Cold War mentality with inflammatory remarks, broadening the situation to frame it as a war between the West and Russia. Between good and evil. Between freedom and tyranny. But what I want to know is, in the very specific case of the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, minus all the Cold War rhetoric, which government really represents good and which government really represents evil? The government that sent troops to keep control over the regions? Or the government that sent troops to keeps those troops from keeping control over the regions? Do they have a right to independence, as Georgia did from the Soviet Union? Maybe. But does Russia have a right to decide? Or the Georgian government? The UN?

News articles:

BBC News, "EU suspends talks on Russia Pact” 1 Sept 2008

BBC News, "Saakashvili a ‘political corpse'” 2 Sept 2008


Updates from Nagaland

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

You may have already seen the two-part interview with Grace Collins in the “CSI Productions” tab of the website (if not, then I encourage you to watch it). I spoke with Ms. Collins recently and it sounds like she has been busy since that interview was filmed.

One “soft multi-track diplomacy” campaign she is working on is modeled after none other than her pet cat Malcolm. A strange suggestion to be an ambassador of Nagaland for sure, but her reasoning is sound. As a cultural diplomat, it is Ms. Collins’ job to share the culture of the Naga people with the seemingly apathetic American public. One medium she has chosen to spread news of the plight of the Nagas is YouTube.

Videos have previously been posted on YouTube about Nagaland, but unfortunately it seems the nation is a victim of its own obscurity—searching YouTube for “Nagalim” yields only 90 videos. Searching “Nagaland” brings in a bit more: 304. Searching “cat,” however, has very different results. This was why Collins’ decided to use her pure-bred Blue cat Malcolm to star in a three-part drama that will expose the problems the Nagas face at the hands of Indian officials enforcing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. “I can’t afford a celebrity,” she said. “But on YouTube you can make anyone a celebrity.” The Malcolm Project will also attempt to tap into the multi-billion dollar pet fashion industry to raise money for orphans of Nagalim.

“Food, culture and art is the best way to create awareness, then comes interest, then comes action.” And it seems to be working. The first video of the Malcolm Project has been viewed more than 370,000 times, whereas the first video that comes up when searching “Nagaland” has only been viewed around 3,800 times.

In addition to the pet industry, Ms. Collins’ work has brought her to the culinary industry, making a Naga cookbook that will also tell a compelling story of the people of Nagalim. It makes sense considering how important food is to the identity of any given culture. It also makes perfect sense given the controversy of the Naga Jolokia pepper. Native to the Naga territory, it is the hottest chili in the world. Ms. Collins has even had the unfortunate opportunity of tasting it first hand. “I didn’t realize how horrible it would be until I tried it,” she said. “I took this big bite of it and my lips turned so bright red it looked like I had lipstick on. The next morning my whole hands broke out.” The main controversy of this chili is two-fold—on one hand are the alleged reports of Indians using the pepper as a torture device by making victims eat massive amounts of them or having their skin burned by forced exposure to the chili that normally requires gloves to handle. On the second hand is the controversy over whether the chili pepper belongs to the Nagas or the Indians. This is directly tied to the human right to self-determination of the Naga people: whether their land and their culture are their own, or whether they are just a part of the Indian territory.

“If you look at the UN definition of a nation, the Nagas meet all of the categories,” Collins said. So why are they still being denied independence?

Click for more information on the Malcolm Project


White South African Farmers

Monday, September 1, 2008

Though there have not yet been many submissions on the CSI website, there is one that caught my eye, as I’m sure it captured the eyes of anyone who chose to open it. The powerpoint presentation on the murders of white South African farmers is graphic and emotional. There are not many facts, but plenty of passion. This makes me wonder how much of it is actually publicized. Even the quintessential source of information—Google—is relatively mum on the situation. So this presentation may be much needed, given the lack of media coverage on the issue. I had certainly never heard much of it and this prompted me to seek out more information on the subject. More information that, let me reiterate, was very difficult to find.

In the presentation it was stated that 1,600 died, but in what time period? Within any particular area? I read that the murders may have totaled 40,000 in South Africa, with around 1,200 between 1994 and 2002 (09 June 2002 WorldNetDaily Article ). I also found information tying the killings to an organization called the Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO)—a group from South Africa that boasts its dedication to the Black Consciousness Movement on their website On this website it is also stated that “although our ancestors fought the [white] settlers bravely, they were defeated by superior weapons. But Azania, the land of the Black People, is still ours and that is why we reclaim it by force.”

Having found these tidbits of information I would like to know more, especially after having read an April 2008 article in the "Toronto Star" (Canada) describing similar, though not quite as violent, circumstances in Zimbabwe—“White farms seized as Mugabe backers stage 'land grab'.” Not as violent yet anyway.



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