Obama’s Law is a forthcoming, feature-length documentary that travels between the Congo and America to reveal the danger of the single African story – the African victim in need of a white saviour - that continues to be sold in the West. Ben Radley for Pambazuka News caught up with the film’s director, Seth Chase, to find out more.
BEN RADLEY: Specifically, then, what’s the documentary about?
SETH CHASE: Well, we look closely at the rise and impact of the conflict mineral campaign that was designed in the West, in particular in America, to help end the conflict in the Congo. This campaign promotes the idea that the conflict in the Congo is a bloody resource war, and in so doing draws on lazy African stereotypes about greedy rebels high on dope and opium, raping women to gain access to mineral wealth, while offering a false solution: that Western consumers can help end the conflict by pressuring electronic giants like Apple and Intel to ensure they’re not financing armed groups in the region. But are Western efforts to aid the Congolese and reduce conflict working? And this issue of selling simple stories based on half-truths to mobilise action in the West goes beyond the Congo. It’s universal, and affects all of Africa. So the film, through the issue of conflict minerals in the Congo, also looks at the wider questions. Who benefits from humanitarian aid and advocacy designed to help the world’s poor? And what do the people being ‘rescued’ think about it? These are the kinds of questions our film tries to answer, or at least give one perspective on, by following a particular movement in the West and its impact closely.
BEN RADLEY: Why did you want to make this film?
SETH CHASE: I was drawn to this idea of when good intentions hurt those they they’re meant to help, but that those holding the good intentions continue to keep pushing the agenda anyway. How often is this happening, why, and what are acceptable negative consequences of good intentions? It was not your typical "good guys and bad guys" story. It was something altogether more tragic. It's been a big struggle emotionally, and intellectually mainly because none of us want to tell horror stories. We want to tell dynamic stories and we want to believe that we can make the world better by fighting the good fight. Unfortunately in this case, some bad things happened, it hasn't gotten better, and no-one seems to be held accountable.
BEN RADLEY: The film revolves a lot around mining, in particular artisanal or informal mining, which is practiced widely in the Congo. What does this world look like, close up?
SETH CHASE: The mine sites I explored in Congo were really horrible in every way you could imagine. Some were just tunnels with no support at all, you could only crawl through long portions. No safety measures. Miners had no protection, often barefoot, torn clothes. There's very few mines with enough space for you to get comfortable. Low quality head lamps, or two people sharing a head lamp. I'm no stranger to the region, I've seen some difficult situations, but I would be filming in these mines, watching these guys hammering away, and I was constantly relieved by the thought that I could get out of this mine shaft in about 30 minutes and go back to the surface and get out of there. I just was so thankful that my life was much more fortunate. I didn't have to be digging in these horrible mine shafts in order to survive. Never mind that there are about 500 thousand Congolese who live this life every day, I was simply glad that I wasn't one of them. For some reason, we as human beings accept that there are just millions of people who are going to be exploited and a few people that are going to be rich and that's the way it is and most of us are okay with that. My hope is that one day, we’ll mature, and treat each other equally, but I don't see that happening with the current structures that we all live in. The mines in eastern Congo will always be the best experience I have for realizing that the world we live in is simply unjust at its core. To work in these mines is to know difficulty and exposure to constant risk. At the same time, and this is where it gets complicated, this kind of mining pays better than the limited other subsistence jobs available in the region, so it's one of the better economic options for anyone who can endure the work, which is why – despite the catastrophic working conditions – it remains so popular.
BEN RADLEY: What’s wrong with trying to regulate the region’s informal mining, if some or most of it is known to be funding armed groups?
SETH CHASE: I'm not sure that there's anything wrong in regard to regulating informal mining in the region. It's more that there isn't the infrastructure and required systems in place to be able to do it, at this point in time. There also seems to be a lack of willingness to finance it. So nobody wants to pay for the sector to be regulated, and there aren't systems and infrastructure in place to allow for regulation that conforms to the requirements of due diligence in mineral supply chains. More than that, if you think regulating the mining sector will solve the rebel group problem, it won't. Mining isn't the causal issue. I don't know anyone living or working in eastern Congo who believes for one second you can end the conflict in the DRC through regulating informal mining. That notion came from outside, and it sounds like an interesting theory if you know nothing about the DRC. But for those who know a bit about eastern Congo, that concept is a strange fiction.
BEN RADLEY: The film is critical of aid and advocacy organisations whose good intentions often lead to adverse and negative consequences. How can this be improved?
SETH CHASE: I see how our film can be seen to be critiquing NGO's or advocacy groups. But if that's the take away for the viewer, I'd say I didn't succeed in my job. I see this film as capturing a story that happened in the DRC, a story that represents Western-led aid and development in general. A story of culture clash and misinformation, and broken systems, and how it all effects people. The events that our film follows happened in the DRC. Real people suffered because of Western activism intending to help them. In America a message has to be simple to push policy, but in Congo nothing is simple. That's a problem. Advocacy groups went for a shortcut, and it failed. Humans want to do good, but results are harmful; fair enough. But the broken political and economic systems endure, we continue to try and force positive change through these broken systems across cultures. It's like trying to build a house with all the wrong tools. At best it's inefficient and non-effective and at worst it's destructive and even deadly. I’m not sure how it can be improved, within the existing structures we have available to us.
BEN RADLEY: What do you hope people will takeaway from watching your film?
Well, what I’m trying to make is a documentary about the stories sold when Western humanitarians seek to change the world, and in particular to ‘help’ Africa and Africans. What kind of stories they are, who gets to control what goes into them, and ultimately, who benefits from them. Because this storytelling needs to change. Africa and Africans are writing their own stories every single day, but, in America at least, we’re not really listening. We’re still assuming we know best. One of the Congolese women we interviewed for this film probably put it best, when she said to us that in the Congo, people are educated, and know what to do with their lives. It’s time that outsiders let the Congolese drive their own process of development, rather than persist with external interventions that will never stick, and too often provide simple, technical solutions to complex, political problems. I’d like the film to reach people in my own country with this message. If I can achieve that, no matter how modest the reach, I’ll be happy.