Watch whistles being blown and frack by proxy

The Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ), based at City University, London since 2003, offers training courses and online resources to practising journalists as well as guidance for potential whistleblowers. Since 2010, this has been complemented by an annual film festival showing some of the best recent films in the field.
Michael Dominski
15 February 2012

London in late January is dark and depressing. As is the world, if you take the half dozen films on offer at the third CIJ Investigative Filmweek as an accurate representation. It is a world where domestic energy extraction inflames our drinking water, where each of us is connected to civil war and child labour by the technology we use, where the weakest in our society are subjected to systematic abuse and torture, and where those who are commissioned to protect world peace indulge in the trafficking of minors for organized prostitution. Happiness would be a warm gun, indeed.

But faced with such wrongdoings not all of us are picking up the gun or the rope or even that more popular recourse of turning to the box for some escapism. Instead they choose the phone, laptop and camera and begin to investigate.  Their subjects are worthy, their work of the highest standard possible in the circumstances, and their motivation honourable. I can see why they want to make these films: by removing the veil from so much injustice, pollution and exploitation, they are fighting for a better world, and that feels good.

What puzzles me, however, is why you would want to see these films? After all, a better world is at your fingertips: the lightest of touches on the remote takes you instantly to celebrity island, into a stadium or for a rollercoaster ride. I think the attraction here might not be the subject of a film at all, but maybe its author. So let’s concentrate on the investigators and whistleblowers, how they present themselves and their work on camera.

The Whistleblowers 

Two films screened at the CIJ Filmweek feature characters who while on the job raised their hands first to their managers, then in the media, to bear witness to the fact that things on the ground weren’t quite as it said in the handbook.

In Undercover Care: The Abuse Exposed Terry Bryan, a nurse in a Bristol care hospital for the learning disabled and autistic, witnessed how patients were subjected to a regime of mental cruelty and physical assault for the entertainment of the very people supposed to be caring for them. He reported the abuse over a period of several months and when nothing was done by his bosses at Castlebeck or the industry watchdog, Care Quality Commission (CQC), got in touch with BBC Panorama.

The Panorama producers managed to filter in a sort of whistleblower of their own.  Joe Casey finds employment as a support worker in Terry Bryan’s former place of work, Winterbourne View, and over a period of only five weeks secretly films abuses ranging from goading a patient with a mental age of an infant to commit suicide, to flooring patients unprovoked with martial arts techniques for the fun of it, as well as leaving them soaking wet in the freezing cold to teach them manners.

Undercover care

“My experience at Winterbourne View will stay with me for a very long time.” (Joe Casey, undercover whistleblower). Source: BBC/Panorama.

The carers’ behaviour should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ conducted in 1971 involving two random groups of men playing at prisoners and guards: give any one social group absolute power over another, and unimaginable abuses may occur. The original footage, or either of the two dramatizations of The Experiment (Germany 2001 and US 2010) would shock any audience without further comment.

But on British TV the audience can’t be trusted to make up their own mind or even feel the ‘right’ way. No, there needs to be constant insertion of Joe Casey’s video diary telling us again and again how loveable the patients really are, how awful the staff, and that what you’re about to see/or have just seen is easily the worst he has had to witness in his young life. Does the BBC really fear that we will cheer for the bullying tactics of tattooed skinhead carer Wayne using a chair to pin down a patient or copycat him in our own family homes or workplaces? Please Auntie, stop nannying us.

Another fictionalized whistleblower is Rachel Weisz as Kathy Bolkovac, the Nebraskan police officer who on an international policing contract in Bosnia at the turn of the century realizes that peacekeepers, UN workers and international police are not only frequenting brothels housing abused trafficking victims, but are complicit in the trade, forging documents, aiding the illegal transport of women into Bosnia and tipping off bar owners about impending raids.

Just doing her job following these leads as head of the UN’s Gender Office, which deals with investigations into sexual assault, domestic abuse and sex trafficking, Kathy runs into a brick wall erected by her superiors at DynCorp, the private contractor the State Department had outsourced international police work. Diplomatic doubletalk at mission HQ ultimately leads to her ‘wrongful dismissal for protected disclosure’ as is proven in a UK court two years after the event, leading to huge media interest and ultimately this film, The Whistleblower


“One woman’s fight for justice” (Rachel Weisz as UN trafficking whistleblower Kathryn Bolkovac). The Whistleblower. Source: CIJ.

Not a Hollywood production but made with Canadian and German money, the film nevertheless follows genre stereotype and focuses on the story of ‘one woman doing right’ in the face of huge male opposition. The filmmakers’ palette is moral black and white; the men with few exceptions are bad and the women all good, except for the sexiest one, Monica Belluci as career diplomat. And the victims? Well, the victims are just that, paper-thin as characters and ugly to look at – of course, the result of abuse - and make-up as the actresses themselves are pretty enough. But why a handsome diplomat would want to pay 3,000 deutschmarks to take one of these scarecrows away from a dingy club is hard to comprehend.  

If you like a shade of grey you would be better advised to read Kathy Bolkovac’s book of the film, which also has room for the story of an American colleague who had come to Bosnia out of retirement, fell in love and bought a minor to 'liberate' her without seeing anything wrong in that. He soon finds himself heart-broken when his freed princess doesn’t want to marry her white knight but does a runner instead.

But if you want to read The Whistleblower as an allegory on how the ideal of American international policing and UN peacekeeping struggles with the reality on the ground, Rachel Weisz’ part-heroic part-tragic performance of a Jean d’Arc character is impressive (although these days I can’t see many victims of global conflict wanting to be cradled by the U. S. of A. or their contractors DynCorp, Halliburton/KPR, Kroll, Blackwater - all scandalously active in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya - like Rachel’s Kathy does in the picture above.) 

In Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s Guide to Whistleblowing on the CIJ website he mentions by way of encouraging potential whistleblowers that you only hear about failed ones, failed in as much as their cover has been blown, either by their employers or by themselves going public, often as a last resort to getting heard and staying safe. The price both Terry Bryan and Kathryn Bolkovac paid for their moral integrity has been a huge one, both in terms of losing their livelihoods and going through long periods of uncertainty and fear of retribution.

In the end, blowing the whistle worked out okay for Terry who is now employed by the industry watchdog Care Quality Commission that ignored him initially, in making sure that what happened at Winterbourne View isn’t repeated in other care homes. For Kathy, things have been harder. Despite having won her employment tribunal for unfair dismissal she has found it impossible to find work again in international policing. As for their doubles, you can be sure to see more of both Joe Casey, although possibly not undercover, and Rachel Weisz in the near future. 

The Investigators 

If I were Iraqi, I would chuckle and cry watching Gasland: oh, the irony. Big Money and the US oil industry are not only screwing up ‘my’ country but they are also fracking their own. That’s right. What has been described as the "largest domestic natural gas drilling boom in history” has unlocked a "Saudi Arabia of natural gas" just beneath vast swathes of the country of the Free.

Fracking is short for the process of hydraulic fracturing employed in deep natural gas well drilling. Once a well is drilled, millions of litres of water, sand and chemicals are injected, under high pressure. The pressure fractures the shale and props open fissures that enable natural gas to flow more freely. While vertical hydrofracking is used to extend the life of an existing well, horizontal hydrofracking is a means of tapping shale deposits containing natural gas that were previously inaccessible.

Horizontal fracking differs in that it uses a mixture of 596 chemicals, many of them proprietary, and millions of gallons of water per frack. This contaminated water should then be cleaned and disposed of. That’s the theory. In practice, however the ‘Halliburton Loophole’ in the 2005 Bush/ Cheney Energy Bill exempted companies involved in natural gas drilling from the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act from disclosing the chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing, thus opening the door to corporate lying with impunity: No harm comes from fracking and it is perfectly safe to let the waste water evaporate in large unprotected basins or mix with ground, i.e. drinking water.

But one man sets out to tell the truth. New York based theatre director Josh Fox paints himself a protagonist of sorts with a genuine stake in the issue. His family home beautiful located in the woods off of an artery to the Delaware, think A River Runs Through It, sees his little paradise threatened by the attractive offer to lease his land for fracking that would see him instantly $100,000 the richer. Not one to sign the contract with the devil blindly, he does a bit of background research and discovers stories of people further west who having allowed fracking on their land can now light their tap water. 

This quite unbelievable claim, Josh uses as a red herring for the road trip west where he discovers that there are close to half a million wells in the country. Each can be fracked up to eighteen times, and each frack uses and spoils between 4 and 30 million litres of water with 80-300 tons of chemicals.  Scary shit indeed.

But what about the burning water? The first claimant doesn’t talk to the press anymore, the second could but would not demonstrate as he fears his house might explode. And when we finally meet a farmer willing to hold a lighter to his running water, nothing happens for a long time… yeah right, I knew it… and then suddenly there is a huge flame hanging over the sink. Beautifully done! 


“Filmmaker Josh Fox on the left gets his daily dose of Burning Water – a drink all industry representatives refuse to touch. Cheers! Source: Gasland. 

This trick is then repeated in different locations again and again by different farmer types and adds a bit of gallows humour to a lifestyle in decline as farmers have to weekly import drinkable water by the tank load as well as medicines for their wives’ migraines. Their livestock loses its fur and cattle their prime beef market value. Birds and small animals like rabbits die on polluted rivers which once were just like Josh’s back in Pennsylvania. A depressing future is revealed to him and for him as fracking travels unstoppably to the East.

The same plot of a man on a mission for his own just cause is employed by Danish filmmaker Frank Piasecki Poulsen whose declared ambition is to have for his daughters’ sake, his mobile phone free of conflict minerals. However, what works well for Gasland where footage of Josh knee-deep in the waters of his favourite river bend in the middle of lush flora says it all about what is at stake, isn’t quite pulled off in Blood in the Mobile. The sensational title, attention-grapping metaphor at best, hyperbole at worst, doesn’t translate into a picture, and Frank’s off-screen daughters are possibly more interested in ringtones anyway. 

But the girls can see daddy trying his best, spending days on the phone to get an interview with Nokia without success, travelling to Oslo to confront the makers of his preferred handset Michael Moore-style, and at mid-point setting out on a journey to the Heart of Darkness of mobile mineral mining, the Eastern Congo. In a feature adaptation Frank would be portrayed by Russell Crowe, and there is something about the Gladiator in his bullish self-serving sense of righting a wrong done his family.

Bloody mobile

Have you used blood in my mobile? Frank Poulsen tries in vain to speak to Nokia. Source: Blood In The Mobile.

Having arrived in Kinshasa, Frank visits a senior civil servant in the Ministry for Mining to get a travel permit to visit the Kivu province, where many mines are operating. Learning that Mr Kampekampe also has business interests in the region helping foreign companies to get mining licences, he is immediately on his high horse lecturing his host on his conflict of interests: this just wouldn’t do in Denmark would it?

This western arrogance travels unconsciously with otherwise very likeable Frank wherever he goes.  Having hitched a UN flight into Goma, Kivu’s capital right on the border to Rwanda, he’s stuck for days trying to get onward travel to Walikale where just days before a massacre occurred. UN personnel are unwilling to accommodate him further and in making his own arrangements he has to get the permission of the regional commander of Congo’s Armed Forces (FARDC). The camera seems to mock this smiling but ruthless character when he shows his collection of uniforms and photos of himself dressed like former ruler Mobutu or like a Massai warrior. What the filmmakers don’t seem to realize is that many, too many of the shots in Blood in the Mobile, set up exactly the same sort of personal visual chronicle for Frank Paulson, to be shared with friends and family.

Before he secures a seat on the plane used to collect the minerals from the mines, a night is spent drinking heavily with a local who, very drunk, tells a story – from hearsay? when did it happen? – about the most brutal rape of a woman on the chopped up bits of her husband. This together with the repeated info titles of more than 5 million dead in 15 years of civil war, presumably fighting for control over the mines in the region, is meant to illustrate the blood bit in the mobile. Scant if any reference is made to the origin of much of the conflict in the 1994 Rwandan genocide and in particular French-sponsored Operation Turqoise which saw nearly two million Hutu refugees including many genocidaires escape to the Congolese part of Kivu when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) won the battle.

Next stop on the journey into darkness is Walikale where Frank passes on the chance to make a film not about himself but about a teenager who escaped the massacre in the Bisie mine. Going by the name of Chance this sympathetic 16 year old who has worked the mine for three years and agreed despite the massacre (really a bloody attempt by local Mai-Mai to take control from the FARDC) to take Frank there, could have been an ideal focus point for audience empathy but no, Frank again decides to put himself in the centre of the frame on this jungle journey to the mine by motorbike and foot.

Thanks to the paperwork, Frank gets into the camp and goes with Chance down into a mineshaft ignoring the angry outbursts of a miner yelling at him not to film him without his permission: too important is the truth, too persuasive the imaginary of these young people working with hammer and chisel, sometimes for days at a time, to extract the minerals that make our mobiles work. The final act of the film returns to Frank chasing Nokia managers but the challenge he articulates - what is he to tell Chance back in the Congo? -  seems rather unconvincing: for as far as we can see, Chance has been left to take care of himself by, we assume, going back to work the mine and, take note, doing so out of his own free will.

From film to action 

The great thing about watching activist films at a festival rather than on the box is that it provides a cathartic experience for the audience similar to a good sermon. We feel part of something bigger and better, there is a noticeable burst of energy ready to be put to use for the good fight, and where choristers in church might now set off with the collection box, at festival screenings it’s time for the Q&A.

Panels at the CIJ Filmweek saw whistleblowers and filmmakers, activists and lobbyists fielding questions from the floor more on the issues raised then on the filmmaking (always a sign that the film achieved its primary objective of raising interest): Have the guilty been charged? Have regulators woken up? Are legislators passing the appropriate bills? What can I do?

While answers to the first few questions often had some kind of sobering effect as the larger complexities of the issues and competing societal interests - energy security vs. water safety for example - are not easily resolved, the last one triggered some proposals more inspiring than the universal recommendation to visit the film’s website to download a form letter to send to your MP/representative.

There were calls for buyers’ boycotts of mobile phone companies until they bring to market mobiles guaranteed free of conflict minerals, but not much faith that western users would forego their favourite tool/toy. But I think with an update to the old ‘I’d rather go naked than wear fur’ campaign, users could be won over to a moratorium on new purchases with say a poster featuring nude men with a variety of slimline smartphones covering their modesty. The one with the biggest smile would be the hunk with the chunky outdated model: ‘I’d rather use my old brick than a bloody new one’.

Thinking in economic terms also informed some original suggestions on the darker side of international peacekeeping. One audience member proposed to cut the pay of UN ‘lovemakers’ abroad to undermine the capital base of the prostitution market, bettered only by someone else suggesting that more women should be employed in these missions so that the demand for sex could be satisfied ‘in-house’.

Funny as these ‘out of the box’ ideas might be, they, too, confirm our obsession with ourselves, our consumer rights, and our demands. Missing in the films above with their narrative focus on whistleblowers and investigators as well as absent from the panels were the voices from the supply side, and I don’t mean Nokia or Halliburton but the boy miners and working girls. My gut feeling is that for them a better world would not be achieved by abolition of their livelihood but rather by improving their labour conditions. But why don’t we ask them?

The CIJ invites you to suggest films for inclusion in next year’s programme. I for one would like to see Workingman’s Death and Whores’ Glory, neither of which feature a whistleblower or investigator in front of the camera but allow the ‘subjects’ to speak for themselves. Submit your own wish list to [email protected].

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