(08/03/07) – One of the highlights of last year’s exceptional Vancouver Film Festival was a documentary entitled Shadow Company, one of two exceptional pieces investigative journalism that this critic saw there (the other being Encounter Point). Directed and produced by the fiercely intelligent young filmmaker Nick Bicanic, the movie focuses on war mercenaries, who profit from the sort of violence and un-rest taking places in parts of the world such as Iraq and Sierra Leone. Suffice to say, Shadow Company is incredibly balanced – allowing viewers to see the horrors of war and the resulting gain for private contractors but without any sensationalism – rather, the viewer is allowed to make their own minds up. Kamera caught up with Bicanic for the following chat and interested viewers can currently obtain a full special edition DVD of the movie via the feature’s web site: www.shadowcompany.com
What prompted you to make Shadow Company?
I had a close friend at Cambridge University called James Ashcroft. He graduated as a lawyer and though I lost track of him in the years immediately following university I was always peripherally aware of what he was doing. I knew he was in the British army for a number of years and then he continued his law career. At some point he got bored of law and yearned for the more action-packed days of the army. I remember at one point he wrote me an email saying he was going to be a mercenary in West Africa. Initially I thought this was amusing because my original idea of a mercenary was some sort of Hollywood stereotype of a guy with a big machine gun overthrowing another country (laughs).
As it turns out he did not take that contract but he did start working in Iraq for a large Private Security Company. It didn’t immediately occur to me to make a movie about this – initially I just took an interest because a friend I knew well was doing something out of the ordinary – but as I found out more and more about these modern day mercenaries it became obvious to me that the ‘Rules of War’ had changed – and that there was a fascinating story to tell here – one that many people had no idea about.
How hard was it to find funding for the project?
In a nutshell it was almost impossible unless we were willing to forego our principles… Since the production company was at the time based in Vancouver, Canada – although it was since moved to Los Angeles – we approached the largest Canadian broadcaster, the CBC, about a pre-broadcast license – if allocated that would provide us with the development financing needed to shoot the documentary and then we could worry about other issues, such as editing, stock footage, music rights and so on, afterwards. We made it quite clear to the CBC that we wanted to tell a balanced story. Not one that pre-supposes its conclusion and presents a one-sided point of view but I was extremely disappointed to discover that CBC was only interested in getting involved if the tone was one-sided. I always imagined – perhaps naively – that the whole point of a documentary was to educate people about complex stories – not to wave a flag for political or social opinion. We fully intended to encourage people to ask the right questions not give them simplistic answers. It transpired that the only way we were able to do that was if we self-financed and self-produced the documentary.
What parts of the world did you travel to and what are your most unforgettable memories?
In addition to the – relative – normality of US, UK and Canada we traveled to South Africa, Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Iraq. Many places and people are intermingled in my memories but the biggest sensory overload was the visit to Sierra Leone… you arrive at Lungi Airport into an environment straight out the pages of National Geographic – where it costs $5 to do almost anything – smuggle bags through customs or bump yourself up the priority line up of the chopper to Freetown – you have to take a helicopter taxi to the capital because the roads are in horrible condition. The remainders of the war are still there – you can see limbless victims doddering along, destroyed buildings and infrastructure – yet many of the people are incredibly proud and are doing their best to return the country to the glory it once enjoyed. The week before I was due to travel to Iraq a few contractors lost their heads – literally – and my girlfriend forbade me any travel into the county. Rather than risk her wrath – and who cares about AK-47’s eh? It’s the screaming girlfriend that’s the real fear (laughs) – we reshuffled our thoughts – and sent two cameras into Iraq with security teams who could get insider access. We stayed in constant contact with them.
Were you against the war in Iraq? What are your opinions on it?
I think by now it’s fairly clear that the major reasons presented to initially justify the war in Iraq were falsehoods. However this film is not about the war in Iraq. This film is about the evolution of an industry – not about the decision of certain governments to go to war. Just like in this industry though – we could have done with a lot more transparency and accountability there as well.
Even so – you told me you wanted to make an unbiased documentary but, surely, it demonstrates how horrible and ill-advised this war was that – at the end of Shadow Company – you still can’t help but be against it?
Sort of like the answer to the last question – the issue for me is not so much the war in Iraq. Rather it is that the private sector has been an active part of conflict zones in many prior wars and will continue to be so once the troop presence dies down in Iraq. In a sense Iraq was simply a catalyst for some people – myself included – thinking about private soldiers – because of the sheer volume of private contractors involved in the conflict in one place. So I don’t agree that the film directly demonstrates how ill-advised the war was. I think the film does suggest that there is a limit to how much of a country’s foreign policy should be influenced by private sector decision makers…Iraq is one fascinating example of that.
What makes your different from Michael Moore or Robert Greenwald who are also doing political docs?
Michael Moore is certainly the heavyweight in this category – both in body weight and popularity (laughs). Jokes aside – both Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald make polemic-driven films – which essentially have a pre-supposed conclusion and then they gather evidence to support their point of view. In my case we worked hard to explain complex issues – with sometimes entertainment-driven devices – but our key aim was not to bludgeon the viewer into submission with our political point of view – but to allow them to make their own mind up – something that I always imagined documentarians should strive for. The thing is that with films like Robert Greenwald’s Iraq for Sale – nobody learns anything. He’s preaching to the choir – so you get thousands who say "yes Robert this movie is incredibly powerful – you are the best thing to happen to political filmmaking ever" – but these people already knew and agreed with his point of view. The opposite side of the spectrum ignores him completely. In our case – all sides of the political fence can take an interest – and learn something. And if you can change a person’s opinion – rather than simply re-enforce it – well, then you’re really doing something cool. As an example – Shadow Company has the support of organisations as diverse as Amnesty International and Blackwater – who are politically almost diametrically opposed. When peace-loving activists and soldiers for hire both get something out of a political movie – that’s a very worthwhile position to be in… In my opinion Michael Moore is a talented filmmaker. I happen to disagree with the way he represents his information – most intelligent people find his films patronising and simplistic – but at least he does so in an entertaning way. Robert Greenwald’s films on the other hand are horribly made and boring, in addition to being one-sided.
Can war ever be prevented? Your documentary rightly shows that almost every world leader embarks on wars, sometimes for their own financial gain or public support…
I’m afraid this is outside the scope of my ability to comment on in an intelligent fashion – but I will try. We humans do seem like a belligerent sort. Though I can imagine some wars can be prevented, just like some playground fights in school can be prevented, there are things that drive various aspects of our global evolution – religion, exploration, ego, natural resources – that seem to lend themselves to war. Does the leadership of powerful nations – or even powerful companies – engage in political/military conflict to foster public support or stabilise the flow of natural resources? I’m sure they absolutely do. Are all of these conflicts wars? I don’t think so.
Do you view the Iraq war as the new Vietnam? Do you think this explains the boom on documentaries on the subject?
Personally I do not think of Iraq as the new Vietnam. Though to paraphrase a well known US Army phrase from the vietnam era "It’s the only war we’ve got – so don’t knock it." In that simplistic sense it is the new Vietnam since it is a war that involves US public opinion – where Vietnam was about fighting in some far-off land against the "Russians" Iraq is sold to the American public as being about fighting in some far-off land against Al-Qaeda. But there are so many different subtleties and worldviews at play here – for a start there was no oil in Vietnam (laughs). As to the boom on the subject – well, rather than just saying that the cause for the boom is the fact it’s the new Vietnam I imagine it’s more to do with the extreme polarisation of media outlets – especially in the US.
One thing your doc did not address was the massive ignorance towards Iraq in the West – for example, the idea that – prior to the invasion – it was some kind of Islamic paradise. Did you ever want to set these ideas straight?
Hmmm – no to be honest we did not intend to address this. Our subject was, by its very nature, very broad and many things had to fall by the wayside in the editing process – the idea of what the Middle East was like prior to the latest Iraq war was just one of many.
Your documentary also goes outside of the Middle East – do you think our news outlets are guilty of ignoring the civil wars in, for example, areas of Africa such as Sudan, the Congo, Somalia and so on?
Yes indeed…Sudan, Congo, Somalia, Ivory Coast – the list goes on and on – there are varying degrees of civil war in many countries in West and Central Africa and some have been going on so long I think they just call them ‘normal life’. So, sadly, the nature of news outlets is such that they get bored of tragedies unless something exceptional happens – genocide, earthquakes or whatever… The world is a bleak place and I guess they don’t feel like reporting on bleak stuff all the time because their target audience wouldn’t like it. Yet another reason for independent documentaries to exist on these subjects…