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U.S. foreign policy takes 1-2 punch

Documentaries about the first Gulf War and anti-drug efforts in Colombia question American motives.

March 19, 2004|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

A pair of hourlong documentaries by husband-and-wife filmmakers Gerard Ungerman and Audrey Brohy tackle U.S. foreign policy head-on in a format more suited to the small screen than the multiplex. "Plan Colombia: Cashing in on the Drug-War Failure" and "Hidden Wars of Desert Storm" both deliver the type of television-style exposes normally seen on PBS' "Frontline," featuring a stream of talking heads and a density of information best absorbed from your living-room sofa.

"Plan Colombia" is a stinging rebuke of the United States' recent anti-drug policies in that South American nation, specifically the titular multibillion-dollar effort approved by Congress at the end of the Clinton administration. The film asserts point by point that the program's initial goals were ill-conceived and may have been an intentionally misleading smokescreen.

Conversations with activist Noam Chomsky, the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, Reps. John Conyers and Jim McGovern, along with a parade of wonks and State Department representatives coalesce with interviews of a broad range of Colombians, from farmers and clergymen to military men, opposition leaders and politicians, including presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt (who was later kidnapped by rebel guerrillas) to form a relatively well-rounded perspective.

The film initially establishes "Plan Colombia" as a fool's errand, the latest in a long line of U.S. foreign policy imbroglios in Latin America that went wrong, beginning with the idea that the best way to stem the flow of drugs was through supply-side interdiction.

Detractors, however, cite the targeting of areas controlled by leftist groups such as FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ELN (National Liberation Army) as evidence that the U.S. policy had goals that went beyond fighting drugs.

Economics, and more precisely, free trade and expanding markets for U.S. corporations, including access to Colombia's untapped oil reserves, are identified as some of the real motives behind "Plan Colombia." As the volume of drug crops doubled in Colombia over a 10-year period, the country's oil production increased roughly eightfold, making it the No. 7 provider to the U.S. and helping to decrease the West's dependence on Middle East reserves.

By early 2002, with much of the U.S. aid in hand, Colombian President Andres Pastrana had severed peace talks with FARC and, in a post-9/11 context, the Bush administration labeled the group a terrorist organization, effectively shifting the focus of "Plan Colombia" from contra-narcotics to contra-insurgency.

Oil also figures in Ungerman and Brohy's 3-year-old "Hidden Wars of Desert Storm," which looks at the first Bush administration's involvement with Iraq and the U.S.' long-term, love-hate relationship with Saddam Hussein. With the use of archival footage, "Hidden Wars" is less dependent on talking heads than "Plan Colombia" and has the advantage of distance from some of the key events.

While the film makes a strong case that the U.S. engaged in duplicitous manipulation after Kuwait raised the price of its oil in events leading to the first Gulf War, its most durable argument may be against the leveling of embargoes because of the harm they cause to the civilian population. Albeit a little heavy-handed in its use of stirring music and large-eyed, starving children, the sequence on the medical crisis Iraq experienced because of the blockade of goods could go a long way toward changing the steeliest of hearts.

The documentaries undeniably cover important subjects and level serious charges against the U.S. government, but their relative brevity, high concentration of information and the intrinsic talk-soup nature of their visuals make them better suited for television.

Another problem with this type of current-event documentary is that they have short shelf lives. Almost as soon as the films are finished they become dated. As well made as they may be, the immediacy necessary to handle this type of material simply doesn't mesh with the realities of theatrical distribution.


'Plan Colombia: Cashing in on the Drug-War Failure' and 'Hidden Wars

of Desert Storm'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Scenes of warfare and extreme poverty, description of torture, but no more graphic than a network newscast.

Released by Free Will Productions. Directors Gerard Ungerman & Audrey Brohy. Producers Ungerman & Brohy. Screenplay by Ungerman & Brohy. Cinematographer Ungerman. Editor Jason Stelzel. Music Fritz Heede. Narrators Ed Asner ("Plan Colombia"), John Hurt ("Hidden Wars"). Running time: "Plan Colombia," 58 minutes; "Hidden Wars," 1 hour, 4 minutes.

Exclusively through Thursday at Laemmle's Monica 4-plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica. (310) 394-9741; "Hidden Wars" also screens Sunday at 1 and 7 p.m. as part of "War and Peace: From Vietnam to Iraq to Israel and Palestine," the United Nations Assn. traveling film festival, Los Angeles Film School, 6363 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (310) 450-5592.

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