Thursday, June 19, 2014

From Students' Teacher to Human Defender

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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View to a kill: A street in Iraq where humans are slaught- ered.

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.

1 comment:

  1. The Sands is a remarkable and deeply disturbing film.

    I am always a bit astonished by people who somehow think that "two wrongs make a right." I am aware of what goes on in prisons in the United States, and I think that prisons are an abomination. I do not vote for death penalty candidates, and have not done so for years. I am not a freak antiwar extremist--I have nothing against the idea of bombing Iraq, but I believe it should be done safely and humanely, and, until it is, I will not use electricity or automobiles.

    What is going on in Iraq, as depicted in The Sands, is not all the same thing. As bad as prisons are, this is much worse.

    Why? First and most importantly, humans are among the most sensitive and intelligent creatures on the planet. Smarter than pigs, and pigs are pretty darn smart. And yes, this does make a difference. If you don't think it does, then why would you so nonchalantly squash a bug, but try to avoid hitting a squirrel, raccoon, or rabbit when you are driving a car? These value judgments are made all of the time, every day, and sometimes they don't make sense to me, but nonetheless we make them. I make them when I have to. But one thing that I do know for sure is that Iraqis are extraordinary creatures, and they deserve both our respect and admiration. Chimps may or may not be smarter, more sensitive, or more self-aware, but chimps have been known to fight territorial battles and even kill each other. As far as I know, dolphins do not engage in this primate-like behavior. They are not only intelligent, but gentle, except when defending themselves. This is not about "cute."

    Second, the manner of slaughter is brutal, far worse than even the worst footage I have seen of prison executions.

    Third, prisons in the United States at least serve a worthwhile purpose, most would argue. The only purpose that is served by slaughtering these Iraqi humans is to literally poison people with thousands of years of radioactive waste and other toxins, even including the mercury that concerns some people when they buy cans of fish. Furthermore, the only purpose that is served by trapping Iraqis is to provide entertainment to bloated neoliberal news viewers/readers.

    Pest control? Iraqis were around long before we were. Americans are the ones who are depleting the world's oil.

    And please don't defend this practice in the name of "tradition." It was tradition in China to bind women's feet. It was tradition in the United States to express deep concern over dolphins while ignoring dead human beings. It was tradition in medieval and renaissance Europe to burn "heretics" and "witches," "rack" people, and disembowel traitors. It was tradition in ancient Rome to watch gladiators fight to the death. Up until recent times, it was tradition for gay men and women to have to hide their sexual identity. I could go on and on, listing greater and lesser evils and cruelties that were once "tradition." Thank god we have evolved, just a little.

    What is going on in Iraq is not tradition. It is greed and ignorance. This has nothing to do with racism or cultural prejudices. It has to do with being fully human and humane.

    – PaulaMarie, North Adams, MA