Frank Piasecki Poulsen’s documentary Blood in the Mobile is an unflinching exposé of how some of the world’s biggest phone companies – in particular Nokia - are financing civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo by buying conflict minerals used in mobile phones. IdeasMag talked to him about the ethics and practical difficulties of making a film in the Congo, and his advice to other documentarians…
Why did you choose Nokia as the target of your documentary?
I chose them because I am a customer of theirs, and they told me they are a socially conscious and responsible company, when quite clearly they are not.
Your film asks some very big ethical questions. What ethical questions did you have to face as a filmmaker during the shoot in the Congo?
The problem with the film is it’s reproducing the prejudices toward Africa, as a Heart of Darkness place. Every time you reproduce that story, it doesn’t make people want to invest in Africa.
How about when you came to edit the film? What questions did you ask yourself in terms of narrative and structure?
The first time I went to the Congo, I was looking for a hero character who was fighting [for] his local community [to] benefit from the resources in this mine, and who wanted to stop the warlords from skimming off the cream.
But I realised after the first trip I wanted to make a film about our part in the Congo. I wanted to connect all the dots between our lifestyles in the west and the lives of the people working in a mineral mine in the Congo.
Did you have to pay anyone off in the Congo in order to get the film made?
I’m very reluctant to hand out bribes. I really think bribery and corruption is making the immune system of society shut down.
The Congo was very difficult. The first time I took out the camera I didn’t even get out of the car before I was arrested; the authorities were always arresting me for unlawful filming and then spending an age going through my papers, just waiting for me to put $20 on the table, and I don’t do that.
How did you begin as a filmmaker?
I worked 10 years for free, living off social welfare or living off my wife, and I pursued the stories that I wanted to tell, and that gave me a breakthrough. I now have more possibility to tell the stories that I want to tell in the way I want to make them because of that stubbornness. I really encourage people to hang in there and believe in those stories when no one else does.
What’s your advice to a young documentarian interested in making campaigning films?
The people with the money – they never want the films that are important. If you’re looking for them to finance your film, you have to mend and bend and you have to change your piece so much that you won’t recognise it in the end. So finance your film yourself, if you possibly can.
In Focus: Filming in the Congo mines…
In so many situations when you were with people who are angry and have automatic rifles, there’s always a way you can intervene. You can look them in the eye and tell them to relax and defuse a dangerous situation. Down there in the mine, there’s nothing you can do if something goes wrong. That was the scariest part in this film.
I was in the mining area twice, and when I took the camera down in the hole to film myself, everyone down there stopped working because they were looking at this “mzungu” [white man], so the second time I was there I brought a small camera that I could put it on the head of one of the boys, in order to get the everyday atmosphere of the place.
Blood in the Mobile is out in cinemas on October 19. For more information on the campaign, visit the website.