Have you ever tasted ketchup that’s gone bad? I hadn’t, until a couple weeks ago. Ketchup ferments, and although the effect isn’t necessarily bad—if anything it’s sweeter—there’s an undeniable sensation of something not right, of something off.
That’s the same feeling I had while watching The Project, a documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last month to a packed audience. The Project follows the progress of the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF), a highly trained and expertly equipped outfit tasked with combating pirates in Somalia waterways. But the PMPF isn’t a state-run police force—it’s a private security company funded by the United Arab Emirates and created with the help of some shadowy players including Lafras Luitingh of Executive Outcomes and Erik Prince, founder of the infamous Blackwater USA group.
This is thorny, complicated, and extremely rich material for an incisive documentary. Unfortunately, directors Adam Ciralsky and Shawn Efran passed up the opportunity to make that film. Instead, they crafted what feels like an infomercial for private armies. Let me briefly sketch the film’s approach: Somalia is in shambles and the UN, a hulking and ineffective giant, is either helpless or else satisfied with the status quo. Lafras Luitingh, Erik Prince and the rest of the PMPF crew come to the rescue and recruit a hapless, ragtag group of locals and train them to bring peace and justice to their homeland. Although they face some serious challenges along the way including mutiny and defunding, the group ultimately prevails, saving hostages, battling pirates, and doing what the UN never could.
The dissenting voice in The Project comes in the form of the Matthew Bryden, the former coordinator of the UN’s Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group. Bryden’s objections are substantial—that sending large shipments of arms into Somalia is illegal under international law as well as shortsighted and dangerous—but ultimately he plays the role of the ineffective bureaucrat. The message of The Project is plain: the PMPF and private armies rule; the UN and bureaucracy drool.
A couple days after The Project’s premiere, I spoke with the film’s directors. It was a long interview and Ciralsky and Efran were earnest in the responses. Ciralsky said: “I think it’s really asking people to reevaluate whether mercenaries are necessarily evil. What we found in doing this film was that these are people who rightly or wrongly are willing to step up when no one else is willing to step up—and to put their lives on the line.” Efran echoed Ciralsky’s sentiment: “I think what surprised me was when I met the people in the PMPF, how committed they were—how committed they were to trying to build a high quality force. And how committed they were in their training and bringing a sense of human rights and proper ethics and behavior to the [PMPF] soldiers.”
Their points are valid—mercenaries have played a significant military role throughout history. In fact, 500 mercenaries were employed by the United States in one of our first international conflicts—battling pirates in the Barbary Coast. And in a failed nation-state scenario, maybe they are the best recourse for security. But by not being entirely forthcoming about the PMPF, the directors of The Project undermine our confidence in their narrative. For one, the film makes no mention of what The New York Times called “a number of grisly cases in which Somali trainees [of PMPF] were beaten and even killed” during training. The film gives no context about how Somalia became the disaster it is today, and fails to touch on how the CIA has covertly financed warlords in the region. The Project credits the PMPF with the decline of piracy in the region, wholly ignoring massive international efforts by navies from the United States, China, Iran, Russia, and many others. The film hardly even explores the questionable backgrounds of the ‘mentors’ running the PMPF. Take the organization’s leader, Mr. Luitingh, for instance. Luitingh was once a high-ranking officer in the Civil Cooperation Bureau, a South African kill team that not only assassinated anti-apartheid activists, but bombed a kindergarten, harassed Desmond Tutu, and even poisoned the drinking water of a Namibian Refugee Camp. But you wouldn’t know that from The Project.
The film’s approach made me curious, so I took a closer look at one of its backers, the Moving Picture Institute. Founded in 2005, MPI considers itself “unlike any other foundation dedicated to promoting the ideal of liberty.” Here’s a sample from their roster of films: Pups of Liberty, a cartoon history of the Boston Tea Party; U.N. Me, a documentary chronicling how the United Nations allows “dictators, thugs, and tyrants to tie its hands and dominate its agenda”; and Mine Your Own Business, a documentary financed by a Canadian mining company that disparages the environmentalist movement. In short, MPI helps develop, fund, produce, or promote films that champion neoliberal policies.
I was curious to find out how private security firms fit into the neoliberal agenda. Are mercenary armies a viable, market-based solution to conflict? What role did MPI played in the production of The Project?
I called the directors a second time around, but when I broached the subject of MPI, a publicist came on the line and our conversation was cut short. Did MPI help finance The Project? Did they have any editorial input in its message? I never found out. Whatever the connection between The Project and the Motion Picture Institute is, the directors were reticent to discuss it.