Upon returning to Hollywood from a fact-finding trip to the civil war-torn areas of Somalia, "A River Runs Through It" screenwriter Richard Friedenberg found it ridiculous to hear a movie director complain about his salary, his perks and the studio's cheapness.
"(The director) was paid enough salary to inoculate every single (Somali) refugee for a year. I wanted to say, hey . . . hullo?" he said. (An inoculation cost $2 per person.)
In retrospect, Friedenberg, who chronicled his experiences at the Somali refugee camps in words and pictures as a member of the Writers Guild of America contingent that recently visited the region, said "what seems bitter is that people bitch here."
The WGA group had been invited to visit Somalia and the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in hopes some stories could come from seeing the starvation and relief efforts first-hand--stories that would raise awareness of the situation among Americans.
"This was something new, a noble experiment," said Barbara Francis, the senior public information officer for UNHCR who organized the two-week trip in November. "We're taking people who are interested, people who can come back and mobilize a very highly visible community in the U.S.--and that is Hollywood."
While none of the writers had time yet to "influence the work," as "Field of Dreams" and "Sneakers" director Phil Alden Robinson put it, the consensus from all who spoke at the WGA press conference Wednesday was that the trip couldn't help but spill over into their activities.
Robinson, for one, shot nine hours of videotape from which he's producing two documentaries to air on ABC's "Nightline." The first is an 18-minute, highly personal chronicle of visiting Somalia that he narrates, which was scheduled to be broadcast Thursday night; the second on Bosnia is planned to air next week.
"We've all seen pictures of starving children in Somalia. The awful realization that hit us is that these kids are not starving because of some cycle of nature, they're starving because grown-ups stole their food," he said.
Statistics provided by the UNHCR estimate that 250,000 Somalis could starve by Christmas and another 1.75 million are on the brink of starvation.
"I think more people learned about the atrocities in Cambodia through 'The Killing Fields' than through all the journalistic accounts that came out of that region," said Jonathan Estrin ("Jewels," "Cagney & Lacey"), and added he believes the possibility for stories exists as well for the Somalia situation.
Since it can take a year or more to bring such stories to the screen, the group was queried whether such projects would be too little, too late. Sadly, they said that there's always another crisis on the horizon. The next forecast by the U.N. is in Sudan.
At one point in the trip, TV movie writer Stephanie Liss found herself surrounded by 50 women who begged her not to forget them. She relayed one story of a pregnant Muslim woman who was imprisoned for her husband's politics, raped, released and then shunned by members of her faith.
"It's hard to believe this goes on in 1992 in the world and we are standing by and watching."
Both Liss and Francis contracted malaria on the trip. And while none of the others got sick, they spoke of a constant fear for their lives.
At the Mogadishu airport in Somalia, the group had to quickly deplane so that it could take off immediately, before it was shot at. There was no walking across the Tarmac; it was full of mines. The first sight to greet them were 12-year-olds with machine guns. Estrin likened what he saw to the post-apocalyptic film "Mad Max."
None of the people the group visited with took particular note of their movie-town origins, the contingency recounted. Friedenberg's assessment was that the Somalis see only movies from India: "They don't know from Hollywood."
A smaller contingent went on to Bosnia the second week, where the group was asked to wear flak jackets as the sound of gunfire was ever-present during their tour of bombed-out and shelled Sarajevo. One telling incident was a Cable News Network reporter's left-handed compliment to the delegation organizers for securing hotel rooms on the side of the Holiday Inn that snipers have a harder time shooting at accurately.
"You got the feeling that the world doesn't work here anymore," said Robinson.
Like any politically correct Hollywood contingency, this delegation wasn't shy about postulating on the whys and wherefores of each country's strife.
Actor Mike Farrell, a regular on the Hollywood political scene, took potshots at the Reagan-Bush administrations. "What's happened in Somalia is in part at least a legacy of idiotic foreign policy on the part of the U.S. and the Soviet Union . . . support and weapons for two decades for a tyrant who destroyed his country and left it in a condition that we now find it," he said.
While WGA's Reisman is hopeful for positive feedback from industry peers, he also said he expects to hear from the naysayers too. "Inevitably there are going to be comments . . . 'Hey, wait a minute, the whole world's in an uproar, there are refugees all over the world, we have our own homeless,' " he said. "But what we're saying is, 'Look, people are dying. Let's do what we can. Let's get the word out.' "