The first thing I said to “Mission Congo” director, David Turner, when we spoke on the phone, was how angry his film had made me. The documentary, which played at this year’s DOC NYC, reveals how a charity organization helmed by legendary televangelist and renowned conservative Pat Robertson, had been asking for donations which they used not to help Rwandan refugees as suggested, but to fund a diamond mining operation in the heart of the African continent. Listening to testimonies from people who worked with Robertson, Doctors Without Borders volunteers and other key witnesses dispel recorded statements of Robertson saying how “[he] brought the largest contingent of medicine into Goma in Zaire, at least the first and the largest" during the crisis, will infuriate anyone with the slightest sense of decency.
“My first reaction [upon finding out about the story] was astonishment” explained Turner, “and I was also confused why this story that was so mind-boggling wasn’t being talked about” he continued. Robertson’s Operation Blessing which began in 1994 (and to date exists as an ongoing charity) was promoted through his The 700 Club, a show broadcast on his own network, in which he encouraged thousands of viewers to send their donations to help eradicate cholera in the refugee camp in Zaire. One contributor speaks of how Robertson’s representatives came to her house to collect her jewelry in exchange for “spiritual healing” but then she never heard back from them. “[The story] got buried because of everything else that was going on: Yugoslavia, the O.J. trial etc.” added Turner, who discovered it through an investigative report by Bill Sizemore featured in the Virginian Pilot.
When asked about his thoughts on the state of the media as a way to brainwash masses, Turner smartly pointed out how “in these times attention span has become a little slow because there is lots of information to digest” and given how this was “a story that had to be told” a nonfiction feature was the ideal way of delivering it. “I think of documentary as in-depth journalism” he continued, expressing how the film included lots of research and countless hours of interviews with people like Doctors Without Borders spokeswoman, and Angelina Jolie-look alike, (Turner knew I’d say this which elicited a giggle from me) Samantha Bolton and Barbara Mulvaney who prosecuted Théoneste Bagosora (Robertson declined to be interviewed by the filmmakers).
“Mission Congo” has an urgency the likes of which we rarely see in motion pictures nowadays and I asked Turner if this special trait of film was what attracted him to become a filmmaker in the first place, “I don’t know if that was my motive” he expressed “I just found I could tell stories through pictures”; and the story in “Mission Congo” is one he tells deftly and with a view based on strong journalistic values. “Objectivity was first and foremost what we were going for” he stated “...the form the movie took we figured out when we were editing it”, he added that through the structure, he and co-director Lara Zizic were aiming to evoke a feeling of what the story had been like at the time.
Despite all the feelings of powerlessness, anger and frustration that “Mission Congo” can lead to - “we really toned it down, this is a very objective version” - the film also focuses on the positive, “it’s a story about people who wanted to help”. “In terms of journalism it shows the strength of local newspapers” explained Turner, highlighting the way in which the Virginian Pilot stood behind its story and defended Sizemore all through the process. Through people like Bolton and other individuals who volunteered at the time of need it also provides a beautiful contrast to Robertson’s questionable actions. “I’m glad it came out as a balanced view” added the director, who also said that more than anything he wanted to “spark a discussion about accountability”.
“Mission Congo” does not have a set release date yet and in the meantime Turner, who has a remarkable background in terms of knowledge on social documentaries and Polish film, has already started work on other nonfiction ideas, he also has started work on what would be his first fiction feature film, “it doesn’t have Angelina in it” he added, laughing, “it’s a small picture”.
“Mission Congo” is part of the DOC NYC festival and is currently being screened in other prominent film festivals all around the world.