Frank Piasecki Poulsen had been to Africa many times before, but he was still taken aback when he first landed in Kinchasa to do the research for "Blood in the Mobile".
"The first time I made it to the top of the mountain pass into the mining area and looked down over the 800-by-500-metre crater, it was like looking down on hell on earth."
"This was really Africa the hard way. There was trash everywhere and it stank. It was a big city teeming with life and desperation at the same time," he says.
"Before you can even turn on your camera, you need permits from the civilian authorities, the military authorities, the secret police, the immigration police and the regular police. Every time you run into the authorities, you have to show your permits, and they all have the right to delay you. I made the mistake of saying I was in a hurry and suddenly it took them 20 minutes just to flip through my passport. That's something I had to learn. If I got upset, the process just took longer."
Poulsen can understand why no one ever made a film like this before, which sets out to defy obstacles and potential dangers in a volatile corner of the world.
"It's Africa, that's one thing, but on top of everything else there's a two-day hike through the jungle without UN protection, should something go wrong. Very few reporters are willing to make that trip."
Hell On Earth
After visiting the Bisie mine and getting a sense of how inflamed the situation there was, he knew he had found the premise for his film: to describe conditions at one of the illegal mines that supply minerals to mobile phone manufacturers and finance a drawn-out, bloody civil war.
"The first time I made it to the top of the mountain pass into the mining area and looked down over the 800-by-500-metre crater, it was like looking down on hell on earth. It's impossible to describe this nightmare scenario with all its suffering. All ties to human morality have been abandoned there," Poulsen says.
"Somewhere from 15,000 to 25,000 people, mainly children and teenagers, work in the Bisie mine. No one grows old there. Inside the area, everything is expensive. You have to pay money for protection, lodging, a hammer and chisel and, of course, food and drink. A beer costs 12 dollars, a soda costs 7. Children and young people go there looking for a fast buck, but they are hornswoggled into a system where the cost of living is so high that they can't afford to leave again. They are trapped. Not by a fence but by jungle."
"The trade in minerals at Bisie is self-operating, because of the constant external demand," Poulsen says. "Armed groups make their money by setting up roadblocks and collecting a tax from everyone entering or leaving the mining area. You could try to make a run for it through the jungle, but it would amount to suicide."
Eight days before the film crew arrived in Bisie, more than 50 people were killed in a massacre after trying to seize control of the mine. To Frank, it was a stark reminder of what the conflict is about. "The militias are not fighting for the rights of ethnic minorities or for a political agenda. They are fighting for control of the mining areas, because they are a regular money-making machine. And every time we in the West get out our wallets to buy a mobile phone, we are financing it."
Using yourself to propel the story and putting the issue ahead of personal aesthetics comes at a price. "I had to approach the material in a way that would best explain the issue," he says. "So I had to use all my research footage, even if the camera is whirling around. No doubt, people who see the film, who know about eastern Congo and the things that go on there, will find a lot of information missing. However, we tried to make a film that takes up a serious, heavy issue in a way so people don't mind spending 82 minutes watching it."
"Blood in the Mobile". Photo: Mark Craemer
Nokia In A Bad Light
Ever since he started doing films and television – way before he had heard about Nick Broomfield or Michael Moore – Poulsen instinctively put himself in his films.
"I realised there was almost nothing I couldn't do when I was in front of the camera. I wasn't afraid of kicking in doors of ministries or asking pointed questions of high and mighty editors-in-chief. Nothing was sacred and there was nothing I couldn't get access to."
Visiting Bisie was so overwhelming that Poulsen considered it his duty not only to reveal conditions there but also to use "Blood in the Mobile" to get some possible solutions to the problems. So he tries to get the ear of mobile phone manufacturing giant Nokia.
"I never for a minute doubted that Nokia was already working to find a responsible solution," he says. "I intended to show the drawn-out, difficult process I know it takes to solve this kind of problem. Tracking them in their work, I would spotlight the stumbling blocks. I always had the attitude that I wanted to give Nokia every possible chance to shine as a company that's doing something to solve these problems."
But, even though Poulsen called up Nokia every week for more than a year, he never managed to get a single appointment for an interview. He talked with an army of receptionists, but the communications officers they transferred him to never picked up the phone and never called back. Finally, Poulsen travelled to Nokia's headquarters in Helsinki, where, after much wrangling, he was pooh-poohed with a half-hour interview.
"I feel bad for the people at Nokia who may be taken to task now for giving bad answers or turning up in a movie that doesn't put Nokia in a very good light. But that's Nokia's own business. I just show what happened. Against my expectations, I ended up with a case study of how a big corporation should not react when someone like me comes knocking."
Taking The First Step After 10 Years
The solution is right at hand, the director says: "If you can get big corporations like Nokia and Apple to decide to stop using conflict minerals in their products, the fuel being poured on the civil war in Congo will dry up and the conflict will more than likely come to an end. Of course, that won't solve every problem in Congo, but cleaning up mining conditions would be a start. The big companies seem unwilling to take on social responsibility. They have to be pressured to do so, either by legislation or consumer pressure."
Five days before the Danish premiere of "Blood in the Mobile" Nokia sent a press release to a Danish newspaper stating that the company would start declaring the origin of the minerals used in their mobile phones. The statement was a result of a bill signed by the US Congress.
Naturally, that pleases the director, though he remains sceptical. "Sadly, a close reading of the statement indicates that they are trying to lay the blame on their supply chain, which is not all that different from what they had been saying all along. For a company that claims to be socially responsible, that's simply not good enough."
Poulsen hopes "Blood in the Mobile" will help create the needed pressure. "The situation in Congo is so extreme, and will continue to be so, as long as there is money flowing in. Stopping it takes legislation and the big companies taking responsibility. Let's hope Nokia is ready to at least take the first step – after 10 years of knowing about the problem."