I have never looked at a film with as much trepidation as Machine Gun Preacher. The film is based on the true story of Sam Childers, an ex-con and drug addict who went to Africa and experienced a complete transformation. He exchanged his old days of drug addiction and violence to become the impassioned founder of the Angels of East Africa, a rescue organization for children orphaned in Sudan.
I had already known about the unspeakable horrors that families have experienced in Sudan. I had vaguely known about Joseph Kony, the head of the Lord's resistance army (LRA), and how he kidnapped children and then enslaved them. I knew that it would be incredibly painful to see the depiction of children suffering this way and being stripped of their innocence. However, I felt it was my duty as a citizen of the world to see this movie. You bet I was a crying basketcase during this film, but I became a transformed activist as well after the credits rolled.
Sam Childers is a real flawed hero, a larger than life personality that Hollywood scriptwriters can only dream of creating. As an ex-biker-gang member, he found God and made the life-changing decision to go to East Africa to help repair homes destroyed by civil war. He became outraged by the horrific violence faced by the region's vulnerable populace, especially the children. Ignoring the warnings of more experienced aide workers, Sam breaks ground for an orphanage where it's most needed -- in the middle of territory controlled by the brutal LRA, the renegade militia that forces children younger than ten to become soldiers, or sold into sex slavery (which fortunately was not depicted in this film). But Sam not only builds a shelter, he leads armed missions deep into enemy territory to retrieve kidnapped children, restoring peace to their lives. He wields an AK-47 in one hand, and a bible in the other, channeling all of his anger into finding Joseph Kony. That a biker with lambchop sideburns and tattoos could single handedly save over a thousand orphans is an inspiring message that one person could indeed affect positive change.
Actor Gerard Butler gives an intense performance, channeling the intimidating yet empathic Childers. While it is hard to empathize with his unlikable character in the beginning of the film, you transform along with him in his journey toward the end. You see his intensity and passion when he is preaching, even as his Scottish accent is replaced with a very believable Southern drawl. You can feel every bit of anger in the sweat beads on his brow as he pleads with community members to help him with his cause. Equally important to this narrative is his wife Lynn, who patiently and bravely supports him as he sells his business to use the money for the orphanage, flies to Sudan regularly to dangerous missions, and nearly forecloses his home to raise more money for the orphans' food and supplies. Michelle Monaghan was perfectly cast as a woman who appears vulnerable, but has the quiet strength and fortitude to counterbalance Sam's angry and unpredictable outbursts.
Some critics may argue that Machine Gun Preacher relies too much on Sam's boldness and not enough on the character exploration of the children, but I can see the motive. If the job of this film is to embolden people to do more to help the situation in Africa, then the goal has been accomplished. Perhaps the director, Mark Forster, wanted the audience to feel for the children's plight without exploiting them.
Anyone can identify with San Childers, whether wealthy, poor, a victim, a perpetrator, a religious person, or an atheist. If the point is to move people across the board into action to save these children, then I think Machine Gun Preacher does this brilliantly. Of course the children deserve their own narrative, as they are victims of a man that would make Osama Bin Laden look tame in comparison. But they need our immediate help even more. The primary question in my mind after the film was: why don't more Americans know about the so-called Lord's Resistance Army, and the hundreds of thousands of innocent people they have killed for nearly three decades? Why don't they know that this army forces children to hack their own parents with a machete to death in order to instill violence and self hatred in their young hearts... and making it impossible to return home? Why don't they know that this army decapitates the lips, ears, arms and legs of these children and other villagers to punish them?
While I have always been a donor to Unicef, UNRWA, and St Jude's Hospital, this film compelled me to do two things: First, I donated to Sam Childer's cause at Machinegunpreacher.org/donate. Secondly, I decided to register and participate in the Global Forum on Human Trafficking through Notforsalecampaign.org. The primary victims of slavery still alive in this world are women and children from Sudan to Armenia, Thailand to Brazil. Machine Gun Preacher challenges us to take part in this narrative -- through the eyes and experience of fellow American Sam Childers. As I wrote earlier, I was a basketcase after watching this film, but I have now filled my basket with an arsenal of tools to try and make a difference in these innocent lives, the start of my own journey from a Link TV journalist, to an activist.
Link TV Journalist Blanche Shaheen had the opportunity to interview Machine Gun Preacher stars Gerard Butler and Michelle Monaghan about their experience making the film. Watch the conversation here:
To learn more about Blanche Shaheen, visit www.Blanchestudio.com
(France 24: 0839 PST, March 31, 2011) Colombia's battle against armed rebels continues, but now there's a new force to fight. "Bacrims" -- or bandas criminales -- started to emerge after another paramilitary group demobilised in 2006. These gangs are responsible for much drug-related violence and extortion, and the government has deployed 11,000 soldiers to try to bring the situation under control.
Residents of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (slums) are suffocated daily under the triple weight of poverty, drug cartel violence, and police oppression. In a culture and society as vibrant as Brazil’s, this pressure pushes against the surface with little outlet, especially for the youth. Schools are underfunded, home life is rocky for most, and getting food on the table is never a sure thing. More often than not, kids drift towards the most readily accessible example of people who have escaped poverty: the drug runners and gangbangers. Positive role models are few and far between in a sea of rickety shacks and makeshift abodes. In 1993 in the midst of the Vigário Geral favela, however, a seed was planted in the minds of a few brave individuals-- a seed that would grow into an idea and a way of life that gave hope and provided direction to a generation of favela youth.
Anderson Sá was a typical young kid in 1993, in the process of being sucked into drug trafficking like so many others. That year a tragedy took place so devastating that it would be forever burned into the memories of favela residents. The Rio police, enraged by the killings of four officers, stormed Vigário Geral with guns blazing, looking to kill anyone in sight. When the shooting finally stopped and the dust cleared, 21 innocent people were dead. Anderson Sá’s brother was among them. This had an immediate and life-changing impact on Anderson. His mother worried that the killing would push him further into the world of drugs, but it had the opposite effect. Right then and there, he set out to find a way to stop the endless cycle of violence that his community was trapped in.
Anderson’s thinking soon led to the realization that the only way to end the culture of violence was to substitute it with a more positive cultural model. The first manifestation of this was the Grupo Cultural AfroReggae, a cultural group focused on music and black culture that Anderson started along with his friend José Junior and others. It published the AfroReggae Noticias, a newspaper for youth that focused on hip-hop, reggae and soul music. There was such a need for a positive cultural message that their first community center, the Núcleo Comunitario de Cultura, was opened. It filled a void in people’s lives, and all of a sudden kids in the favela had a place to go to learn music, capoeira, theater and dance. They opened the Vigário Legal AfroReggae Cultural Center in 1997, a larger facility in the community. The musical aspect was especially appealing, and from there Banda AfroReggae was formed. It soon became a huge hit in the favela, thanks to some donated percussion and sound equipment. The band and the movement steadily gained national popularity, thanks in part to the charismatic face of the organization, Anderson Sá.
Several years later, budding filmmaker Jeff Zimbalist was at home in Brooklyn when he received a call from his friend Matt Mochary, who was on the phone from a favela in Rio. Jeff and Matt had been looking to make a movie focused on an example of a successful and innovative community in Latin America, and Matt had found the perfect story. He wanted to examine the community built around AfroReggae and how other communities and favelas throughout Rio were confronting violence. Jeff was sold on the idea, to the point that he quit his job and met Matt in one of Rio’s most violent favelas, Vigário Geral. The scope of the movie steadily shrank as the process progressed and it became more and more apparent that Anderson Sá was a natural vehicle through which to tell the story of poverty, violence, and AfroReggae.
Jeff and Matt spent three years filming in the favela, making many trips back and forth between Rio de Janeiro and New York and becoming close friends with the leaders of AfroReggae. The film Favela Rising emerged naturally from their experiences. It was one of the first documentaries to shine a light on the violence that grips the everyday lives of poor people in Brazil. It shows how courage in the face of fear and intimidation can change the futures and destinies of kids whose outlooks were once hopeless. It illustrates the power that music has to transform society.
Join us this Sunday at 11pm EST/8pm PST for the DOC-DEBUT premiere of the groundbreaking documentary Favela Rising.
The execution of seventeen recovering addicts in last week's shooting in Juarez struck me as one of the most perverse crimes I have ever heard of in my life. Despite having read about a wide variety of atrocities in war -- the killing of pregnant women and children in Rwanda, or the dragging of charred American bodies through Fallujah -- this act struck me as something so cold as to be sub-human. Yet it was the not first time either. Fifteen others have been killed previously in this exact way in Juarez in the last two years.
The violence in Juarez seems to be ignored by most of the media, yet this is truly one of the world's prime war zones right now. A recent New York Times video report stated that in 2008 a civilian was more likely to be killed in Ciudad Juarez than in Baghdad.
Wednesday's attack came on the same day that at least twenty-three others were killed around Mexico, including the number two security official in President Felipe Calderon's home state of Michoacan. It also came just a week or two after Mexico officially decriminalized personal use of many formerly illicit drugs. The new orders for police are that they are to refer addicts to treatment clinics rather than take them into police custody. After Wednesday's attack though, that option may no longer seem so safe.
It seems clear that we Americans share some of the blame for this violence; though perhaps there have been good intentions in criminalizing marijuana, cocaine and other substances, when our prohibitions are combined with our high demand, we have ended up giving these cartels incentive for their work. And now apparently, the weapons that have come through our borders have allowed them to create carnage in their country.
This is a war many of us can can shut our eyes to on a daily basis, because we are not losing anyone there in Mexico. Yet this war is so close to us at the same time: the war zone of Juarez stands a few miles across the border from the relatively safe city of El Paso, Texas.
We can try to keep this violence and chaos out though militarizing the border, and perhaps that will allow us to continue turning a blind eye to this bloodshed. However, it will not absolve us of the responsibility and obligation to help search for an end to this conflict. Some cartels may be brought down, and the centers of violence may move from one city to another, as they seem to be moving now towards Central America. However, as long as the economic incentive exists for these cartels' work, can we really expect to see an end to this violence?
This August, Latin American countries showed their will to dissent from U.S. drug policy, as both Mexico and Argentina decriminalized possession of marijuana and other illicit drugs.
The decision in Argentina came after a Supreme Court ruling that the arrest of eight men in 2006 for possession of marijuana cigarettes was unconstitutional. In its ruling, the court concentrated on the defendants' rights to privacy. As Supreme Court President Ricardo Lorenzetti said, "Behavior in private is legal, as long as it doesn't constitute clear danger."
While Argentina's move is historic, Mexico's decision is far wider in scope. On Friday August 21st, the Mexican government decriminalized "personal and immediate use" of illicit drugs including heroin, marijuana, methamphetamines, LSD and cocaine. For each of these drugs, the government set legal limits for personal possession. One can now possess the equivalent of four joints of marijuana, 4 lines' worth of cocaine, .015 milligrams of LSD, 50 milligrams of heroin, or 40 milligrams of methamphetamines. However, the government remains cautious in its spin on the decision. Bernardo Espino del Castillo of the Mexican attorney general's office said, "This is not legalization. This is regulating the issue and giving citizens greater legal certainty."
Instead of arrests, people caught with these small amounts will be told of available clinics and encouraged to enter a rehabilitation program. One wonders if there will be a Miranda rights-like speech created for this type of encounter. Rehab will be mandatory when a user is caught a third time.
Mexico became the second Latin American country after Portugal to decriminalize possession of these drugs. Reactions to the decision have been varied, especially as drug use remains a volatile issue in Mexico. One recent government survey put the number of Mexico's addicts at 460,000, which was 50 percent larger than the addict population in 2002. Meanwhile, drug use can lead to other public health issues: 67 percent of intravenous drug users in Tijuana, for example, have tested positive for tuberculosis.
Some hope that the decision will lead to a greater focus on drug treatment rather than prosecution, and will help the government focus on the cartels rather than the users. As Alberto Islas, a security consultant in Mexico City said to the Wall Street Journal, "It helps the government focus on the bad guys and lets state and local governments get involved in drug abuse as a public health issue."
Efforts at fighting drug use through arrests have been unsuccessful in the past. Since Felipe Calderon took office in 2006, there have been approximately 95,000 people detained for small-scale drug-dealing and possession, but out of those detainees, only 12 to 15 percent have ever been charged with anything. Many times police officers used the illegality of the drugs to shake down casual users for bribes in order to avoid arrests.
While the change may make for more focused law enforcement, Javier Oliva, a political scientist at Mexico's Autonomous University, said the law could pose a contradiction for the government's larger anti-drug efforts. "If they decriminalize drugs, it could lead the army, which has been given the task of combating this, to say, 'What are we doing?'"
Julie Myers Wood, former head of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement under President G.W. Bush, said she also had doubts about Mexico's decision. "I'm sympathetic with the Mexicans that they need to find a more effective way to deal with the cartels," she said. "But just giving up, in terms of small amounts of drugs like cocaine and heroin, does not seem to me to be the most sensible approach."
Some Mexican law enforcement and drug treatment agencies also expressed doubt about the change. "You're inviting the young generation to use drugs," said San Juan Police Chief Juan Gonzalez to an online news source. Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino said, "It's street-level use that's destroying society."
The NY Times interviewed a Tijuana drug counselor who said, "With everything that's happening, we need to distance ourselves from the drugs. Imagine if I told people in here that it was legal for them to have a little. No way." One of the more interesting opinions came from a Christian Science Monitor forum on the issue. "Lawrence" wrote, "The Mexican drug laws are not what's causing the cartels to gain power and money-- it is the American drug laws."
There's some support for that notion: FBI figures from 2007 showed more arrests in the U.S. for drug violations than any other crime. Of the country's 1.8 million drug arrests that year, 82 percent were for possession, not dealing, and of that figure, 42 percent, or 872,721 people, were arrested for marijuana possession. That figure was a record high for the country, likely indicating record sales for the drug cartels. The Obama administration's reaction to Mexico's decision has been low-key. When US drug czar Gil Kerlikowske visited Mexico in July, he said that he would take a "wait-and-see" approach if the law passed.
As for now, there's no telling whether the new law will help clean the streets of Tijuana, but it will hopefully lead more addicts to treatment rather than police custody.
This week Latin Pulse goes to Colombia to investigate the often-dangerous undertakings of independent journalists, in a country plagued by drug-trafficking, corruption, and violence. The journalists are pushing up against the boundaries of free speech as they struggle to tell the stories of the country's bloody reality, a task they feel is key to creating more peaceful Colombia.
Check out the latest on violence and drug trafficking in Mexico from Latin Pulse: in 2008, 6,290 murders were attributed to fighting between factions of organized drime alone. What exactly are they fighting so vehemently for? And what other illicit, million-dollar businesses are expanding beyond Mexico's borders?
Learn more about Latin Pulse here: http://www.linktv.org/latinpulse
As the waves of the financial meltdown pound banks and governments, the human cost is easily lost in the background. From layoffs to shattered dreams, the global crisis becomes a personal crisis. Do we really see how deeply it reaches into the global community?
SOURCES: Al Jazeera English, Qatar; CNN, U.S.; Deutsche Welle, Germany; South Asia Newsline, India; Russia Today, Russia; KBS, South Korea.