The Democratic Republic of Congo is home to the world’s largest concentration of minerals used for electronics. But is this a blessing or a curse?
by Portia Ladrido
In a society where progress chiefly means owning a gold-plated laptop, we’ve been accustomed to rejoice at the sight of a sleek playstation console or pine for the latest model of smartphone. What we don’t see are the stories of people far removed from our habitual lifestyle.
When Elephants Fight is an award-winning documentary directed by Michael Ramsdell investigating how multinational companies and weak politicians have aggravated the illicit trade of Congolese resources. The smuggling of Congolese minerals has resulted in war, and is in fact the deadliest bloodshed since the World Ward II.
As rebel groups pillaged the Congo, it looked as if these insurgencies were conventional subversive movements carried out to reform the country, but as the documentary dug deeper into the geopolitical issues surrounding the land, we’ve come to see it was so much more than that – corporations negotiating with middlemen who then fund rebel groups while also cozying to politicians and vice versa, all at the expense of the Congolese.
An oppression of a group or community frequently stems from a symbiotic relationship between powerful politicians and even more powerful businessmen. This is not new. We have seen this time and again in imperial and colonial histories across the globe. The film title was derived from the African proverb that says: When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. People who are on top – the political elite, the profit-making corporations – tend to always be in a tug of war for power, and they fail to truly recognise the millions of lives that have to endure their games.
When Elephants Fight went beyond this tug of war for power and explored the grey area by explicitly debunking a simplistic villain versus victim premise. Through in-depth interviews and conversations with policy-makers, think tanks, militiamen, smugglers, and of course, the Congolese people, the film carefully illustrates the in-betweens, the invisible world that we (intentionally or unintentionally) take for granted.
Narrated by House of Cards’ Robin Wright, the documentary displayed an extensively researched issue that provokes viewers to mobilise. One of the most heart-wrenching and painfully honest clips was when a Congolese man called out filmmakers, photographers, and journalists for coming to Congo, documenting atrocities, and taking snaps of impoverished children, only to leave the Congolese people the same way they were found.
“You come to interview us. You come to take our photos. And then what?” he shouted.
The directors and producers of the film have made it their goal to use the documentary as an organisational tool to change policies that push for transparency of electronic manufacturers and mining companies in the US, Canada, and the UK. Apple and Intel have issued statements to join the cause. This call for transparency is increasingly important in order to hold those who knowingly exploit the Congo accountable.
When Elephants Fight reminds us that everything we do is an ethical choice – from the food we consume to the clothes we put on – and it is our duty to, at the very least, be conscious about these choices. Bring this agonising truth in front of your day-to-day consciousness, and maybe, just maybe, we could live to see a much better world than the way we found it.
Portia Ladrido is a multimedia journalist specialising in social justice, culture, and the arts. She is a human rights journalism fellow at the Philippine Human Rights Information Center and the Metro Manila hub coordinator of the Solutions Journalism Network. She currently writes speeches for the Philippines’ first female socialist senator. Previously, she worked as an editor and writer at CNN Philippines.