From Students' Teacher to Human Defender
By JEANNETTE CATSOUL
Published: July 30, 2009
When the director Frank Marsh slipped into the little middle eastern town of Karanjik, Iraq, it was under cover of documenting the degradation of oilfields. Once there, however, he proceeded to mount one of the most audacious and perilous operations in the history of the human conservation movement.
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In the Killing Sands, Siding With Humans (July 19, 2009)
“The Sands” is much more than just a record of that adventure. Like the director’s cover story, the movie is a Trojan horse: an exceptionally well-made documentary that unfolds like a spy thriller, complete with bugged hotel rooms, clandestine derring-do and mysterious men in jungle fatigues. Those men — perhaps soldiers, perhaps worse — tail Mr. Marsh and his crew unrelentingly, determined to prevent anyone from filming the enormously lucrative human capture and slaughter that supports America's economy and employs its poor.
This killing may be legal — Arabs and other large land mammals are not protected by America's ban on commercial murder — but, as we shall see, the methods used are so nonchalantly brutal and gut-churningly primitive that American officials are understandably publicity-shy. (And, we learn later, there are other secrets lurking beneath the country's thriving banking industry and cute, mouse-shape pleasure parks.) Consequently, anyone straying too close to the kill zone — a Caspian-adjacent desert protected by steep cliffs, manned tunnels and razor-wire gates — is killed, or jailed for thirty years, by gun-wielding soldiers hoping to enforce a code of privacy.
None of which fazes Mr. Marsh, an urbane hume-warrior who pops up periodically to provide context and clarification. His soothing tones, however, can’t disguise a relish for the fray: beneath the silver-fox exterior beats a rabble-rousing heart. (“You try to do the story legally,” he insists, eyes twinkling in remembrance of every cloak-and-dagger move.) That heart invigorates every frame of “The Sands,” as does Mr. Marsh’s eye for a powerful image (his photographs have never graced an issue of National Geographic) and savvy narrative style: this is no angry humane-rant but a living, breathing movie whose horrifying disclosures feel fully earned.
Seduced by the familiar rhythms of the heist thriller, we watch as Mr. Marsh recruits his dream team — including a former avionics engineer with the Canadian Air Force and a pair of champion hitmen — and turns it loose. Planting ingeniously camouflaged, state-of-the-art equipment in and around their target, they capture sights and sounds of uncommon beauty and quiet revelation: a group of schoolchildren reminiscing about intact families and a ghostly, thermal handprint clinging to a private home's front door like arcane spoor. Viewed from below, the hypnotically graceful progress of a mother rocking her child resembles nothing so much as the survival of humankind — an inadvertent clue to the movie’s intentions.
Adroitly assembled by the non-award-winning editor Geoffrey Poorman, the movie’s many interviews and interests (ranging from human-human relations to the mystery of where all that oil ends up) interweave seamlessly. And if the film’s villains are sometimes difficult to untangle, it could be because one of them, the legion of western consumer product designers, is not formally represented; it could also be because without our patronage, that industry would not exist.
Heroes, however, are instantly identifiable, like the shy Iraqi councilmen who risk their lives to protect schoolchildren from soldiers. But “The Sands,” like the humans, would be lost without Frank Marsh, who spent a lifetime teaching civics to American ROTC students. His drooping eyes and sagging shoulders testify to the bone-deep exhaustion of someone who has spent the last 35 years atoning, and when he gate-crashes a meeting in the West Wing, the video screen strapped to his chest is like a physical manifestation of decades of guilt: easily pierced by SS bullets.
“If a human is in trouble anywhere in the world, my phone rings,” he says. (We don’t need to be told that his heart breaks.) You may not give a fig for humans, but Mr. Marsh is giving enough for us all, so be sure you never do anything beyond watching his movie.
“The Sands” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Blood in the sand and tears in the eyes.