Tag Archives: political corruption

La Zona (2007)

“When my son grows up , how will I explain why we live behind a wall?”

Transport a Shirley Jackson story to modern-day Mexico and you have La Zona, a 2007 film from director Rodrigo Plá. The film opens in the beautiful clean streets of an affluent community as neatly dressed, uniformed school children march off to a private school. The camera pans through the immaculate streets and across the enormous homes and well-manicured lawns. A veritable paradise? And then the camera pans to huge walls topped with barbed wire and security cameras. Beyond the walls we see a vast sea of poverty and squalor–dilapidated, ramshackle homes and mountains of trash. These opening scenes of this  affluent, secured housing are powerfully constructed and yet at the same time, nothing is overdone.

Those living inside La Zona appear to share common concerns and similar values, and they have the money to buy the sort of lifestyle they want in order to raise their children and live securely. La Zona is protected–not just by walls, barbed wire and security cameras–but also by a team of security officers led by Gerardo (Carlos Bardem). La Zona, set in Mexico City, screams segregation with the lucky few on one side of the wall with the much less fortunate on the other, and with such a striking contrast in material comfort within just a few feet, of course, the inevitable happens, and one night during a freak storm, a billboard collapses and three young men climb into La Zona to steal….

The next day, Comandate Rigoberto (Mario Zaragoza) arrives at the gates of La Zona after complaints of gunshots. His questions are met with disdain and an offer of “50 pesos” to away. Enraged and humiliated, Rigoberto is determined to continue the investigation–even though he gets signals to let it drop. As events play out, the residents of La Zona are defiant and in blatant violation of legal and moral law. Meanwhile Rigoberto ploughs ahead with his investigation even though he butts heads with his ‘superiors.’ 

The rest of the film concerns what happened the night of the break-in, but also, and much more significantly how the residents react. Following the break-in, rumours explode and paranoia reigns, and the servants of La Zona families are subject to extra scrutiny. One scene shows an ad-hoc posse of teenage boys within the gated community hunting for a crook. Armed with golf clubs and even a harpoon gun, the boys swarm over the beautiful golf course and into a wooded gully. There’s so much space, and again off in the distance, outside of the walls, we see a hillside crowded with shacks–no space, nothing green–just squalor and poverty. Holding special emergency committee meetings in which the majority rule, the more aggressive members of La Zona dominate over those who are ambivalent or unwilling to take a moral stand. Ultimately, we see a series of moral mis-steps with either people too weak to stand up and voice their opinion, or people barreled over in a system so corrupt that everything can be bought for a price.

One of the main characters is teenager Alejandro (Daniel Tovar), the film’s moral centre, and in one scene, Alejandro’s father, Daniel (Daniel Giménez Cacho) explains to his son why he chose to live in La Zona and how he lost his faith in the Mexican justice system. Exactly why Alejandro choses to defy his father (and his values) and stand apart from his peers is unclear. In spite of this slight flaw, the film works very well indeed, and the final result is a film that asks some important questions about the right to security, the ability of the rich and powerful to command special dispensations, and once those dispensations are granted, just how far should they extend?

Director Matt Ehling made a short documentary film a few years ago about gated communities called Forbidden City, and one of the points the film makes is that gated communities are a sign of “increasing polarisation” between the rich and the poor. Mexico has the largest number of gated communities in the world, and some, like La Zona, are completely autonomous with their own electricity and water systems. Crime will always be one major argument for gated communities. With kidnappings on the rise in Mexico, at least one company offers sub-dermal transmitter implantation. Wealthy families are, of course, targets, and so it’s probably logical that the wealthy band together and pool resources in order to establish a safe environment. (I’ll add here that it’s not just the wealthy who are kidnapped–I read one case of a child of a shepherd who was killed by injected bleach when his parents failed to come up with the ransom).  The plethora of gated communities springing up worldwide is a symptom of a malfunctioning society, the ever-expanding gaps between the very rich and the very poor,  and the failure of state mechanisms which are, in theory, supposed to provide protection. In La Zona, we see a group of wealthy people attempting to establish a utopian community–a community which is occupied by people with similar social positions, values and wealth. Having established the community they desire, they operate it with a manual of by-laws, and when a showdown occurs, they feel justified in exacting punishment. It’s at this point that some residents reject La Zona (in their evaluation, it’s no longer a utopian community), and others return happily to the established status quo.

La Zona is an entry in Caroline and Richard’s Foreign Film Festival.

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The Sea Wall (2008)

A few years ago, the French film The Lover, based on the book by Marguarite Duras, made the cinema circuit. I loathed the film for its excessive romanticism. Yes I know millions loved it, but I didn’t.

So when I saw that another novel by Duras had been made into a film, I initially decided to avoid it. But then when I read that Isabelle Huppert had a leading role, I knew I would have to watch The Sea Wall (Un Barrage Contre le Pacifique). The film, set in 1931 Cambodia, is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name.

So here’s the set-up: A middle-aged widow (Isabelle Huppert) lives with her two children, 20-year-old Joseph (Gaspard Ulliel) and 16-year-old Suzanne (Astrid Berges-Frisbey).  The children have never been to France and yet they seem to lead lives of shipwrecked French set adrift in Cambodia. They speak French, and obviously the mother has tried to maintain some French cultural standards, but in many ways they’ve run wild. Joseph, whose teeth are rotting in his head, is a smuggler and spends nights hunting out in the jungle with a Cambodian he calls The Corporal (Vanthon Duong).

The first few scenes establish the family dynamic. They live in an impressively large but primitive hut and are waited on, colonial style, by servants. The mother is the driving force of the family unit, and Joseph is his mother’s favourite to be indulged as much as can be allowed when you’re dirt poor. He’s not at all an appealing character, and an early scene involving a horse highlights the sort of brutal pragmatism he’s inherited from his mother.

And what of the mother? We know that she’s lived in Cambodia for at least 20 years. Her husband was a minor bureaucrat of the French Empire. After scraping together every last penny she possessed, the mother, with relentless drive, bought a plot of 12 acres next to the sea, but now she fights to keep the family afloat. Each year the land is flooded by the sea and the rice crop destroyed. This is a marvellous role for Huppert as she plays a diminutive woman whose frail shell houses a formidable, relentless will. Yet in spite of this unbending, tireless and at times vicious determination, she visibly fades as her illness gains ground.

Although the land would appear to be less than desirable, clearly many people want to get their hands on it. Take away the flooding problem and the soil is rich. The mother is plagued by petty French bureaucrats who try to seize her land under any legal pretext they can dream up, and then there’s her fragile health. Her most formidable and seemingly unconquerable adversary, however, is nature. Huppert plays a single-minded intense character who refuses to bow to the law or to nature; eventually she conceives of a plan to build a sea wall to protect the crops.

The drama ramps up a few notches when Suzanne comes to the attention of Monsieur Jo (Randal Douc), the son of a millionaire. While Joseph is initially disgusted and humiliated by his mother’s matchmaking plans, he too gets the idea that Suzanne’s virginity is for sale. Suzanne, intoxicated with her new sexual power, alternately flirts and teases Monsieur Jo, driving him wild in the process.

The story is set against the backdrop of a bloody phase of Cambodia’s history. Natives are rounded up and used for free labour, and French bureaucrats grab the land from the natives and evict them from their huts.  The mother, bitter from her experience with French rule, incites the local farmers to fight back. I’ve read several negative reviews of the film including the comment that this is yet another anti-colonialism film (and do we really need another?)  I’d argue that since colonialism still exists today in a mutated form, politically the film is still relevant. To categorise the film as anti-colonial, however,  is far too simplistic. We see that there’s a hierarchy within colonialism and it’s not simply the natives vs. French. After all, the mother, who has arguably benefitted from colonialism has paid a terrible price for her displacement and she and her children are now stuck in Cambodia one step from homelessness and poverty. How would this family adjust if they returned to France?

The film ends with hints of the social disaster to come. If Joseph & Suzanne remained in Cambodia until their 60s, they would see the bloody rise of Pol Pot.

On another level the film is about the bonds and the distances between parent and child. The mother is aging and in ill-health, but she refuses to give up her dream of economic independence for her children. Her decision to invest in this Cambodian plantation has in effect dictated the lives that her children will lead. While she has relentlessly sacrificed to pursue her goal, both Joseph and Suzanne cannot wait to escape. Joseph has options (hunting, smuggling) and is free to leave more or less at will, but Suzanne’s escape is limited to her sexual function.

My DVD includes an interview with Cambodian director Rithy Panh, and Panh decsribes the Duras novel as “anticolonialist.” He also notes that the rich, fertile fields once owned by the Duras family are under cultivation today and are known as the Rice Fields of the White Woman.

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Filed under Cambodia, France, Isabelle Huppert, Political/social films

The Kaiser’s Lackey (1951)

 “If your political dilettantism continues, there will be an explosion.”

Director Wolfgang Staudte’s marvelously understated satire, The Kaiser’s Lackey, a 1951 film, was recently released on DVD. Set mainly in the 1890s, the film is based on Heinrich Mann’s novel Der Untertan. Originally banned in Germany, The Kaiser’s Lackey is now considered one of the 100 greatest German films ever made.

kaiserThe film’s protagonist Diederich Hebbling is hardly a hero; as a boy Diederich is terrified of everything. From his father’s impassioned, tyrannical rants to his mother’s ghastly tales of what happens to children, little Diederich learns to never take chances, and dog-like he follows the rules. The very first glimmer of Diederich’s character appears in an early classroom scene when he curries a teacher’s favour by tattling on a fellow student.

By the time Diederich (Werner Peters) is an adult and attends university, his character is set. Attracted to Agnes Gopel (Sabine Thalbach), he scurries away when threatened by a rival, and turning from the challenges of love, instead he becomes enthralled with the Neo-Teutons–a group that gives a sense of identity and kinship and that ultimately shapes his notions of German superiority and imperialism. Dabbling with contrived duels to gain obligatory, status scars, he “experienced a sort of suicidal élan,” and gradually Diederich’s inclusion in the Neo-Teutons becomes a substitution for personality. He evades military service by pulling strings, and lacking imagination, spontaneity, and individualism, Diederich becomes the perfect material for a politician. Eventually, with the confidence and comfort gained from extensive drinking rituals and the superficial camaraderie of the Neo-Teutons, he despoils Agnes and then casts her aside due to his notions of ‘unblemished’ womanhood.

When Diederich inherits his father’s paper factory, he returns home to Netzig and becomes a petty tyrant. Rabidly anti-Semitic, he prides himself on his patriotism and harsh treatment of his workers. In unsettled political times, Diederich learns to curry favour from the socially superior bombastic governor, but he also gains cooperation from the oppositional Social Democrats by bribing one of their leaders. Some of the scenes involving the governor and his dog are hilarious. Diederich, who’s beneath the governor’s dog on the totem pole of power, must suffer various indignities without complaint in order to gain access to the governor’s presence, patronage, and privileged inner circle. And like the good little underling he is, Diederich knows better than to complain when the dog treats him like some sort of squeaky toy.

Eventually elected to the town council after gaining notoriety through a preposterous trial, Diederich’s pomposity and vanity have no limits. Courtship to a local heiress whose inheritance and bovine nature suit Diederich’s ambitions results in marriage and a honeymoon. Once Diederich learns that the Kaiser is expected in Rome, he diverts his honeymoon plans, and abandoning his wife temporarily in the street he succeeds in gaining a glimpse of his idol. Running alongside the Kaiser’s carriage like a faithful dog, Diederich is the last person to realize how insufferable and ridiculous he is.

The film, however, makes it perfectly clear that even though Diederich is a buffoon, and a cretinous underling, as an autocrat shaped by the “corps, the army and the Imperialistic spirit” he’s a destructive force, and this is established in the film’s final prophetic scene. Diederich gives a thundering patriotic speech given at the unveiling of the town’s statute of the Kaiser, and with a captive audience, he becomes carried away–even ignoring the governor’s order to stop. As Diederich’s speech becomes more impassioned, the weather turns sour and his speech’s militaristic, nationalistic tone parallels the gathering storm. Admonishing the crowd that the nation’s greatness is “forged on the battlefield,” Diederich finishes his speech ignoring the collateral damage occurring around him. This brilliant symbolism presages Germany’s coming destruction and a barking, insane and obsessed fuehrer whose notions of racial purity, militaristic traditions, and German imperialism plunged the world into war.

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Mariposa Negra (2006)

mariposa

“Sometimes it’s better not to know.”

The marvelous, amazing and ultimately tragic film Mariposa Negra (Black Butterfly) follows the relationship between two young Peruvian women who are thrown together by circumstance and then swept up in brutality orchestrated by Montesinos, the head of Peru’s Intelligence Service. This is yet another incredible film from director Francisco Lombardi. After his fantastic Ojos Que No Ven and Tinta Roja, I couldn’t wait to see Mariposa Negra, and I was not disappointed.

When the film begins, young idealistic schoolteacher, Gabriela (Melania Urbina) is engaged to judge, Guido Pazos (Dario Abad) when he is brutally murdered in his apartment. Tabloid journalist, Angela (Magdyel Ugaz) is assigned to cover the story. As usual, her boss, Osman (Gustavo Bueno) hands her an outline of the sort of muck he wants her to write. The torture and murder of the judge–a man who’d received death threats–turns into a sleazy story claiming that the judge was killed while participating in a homosexual orgy.

Grief-stricken Gabriela begins haunting the newspaper office. Already ripped apart by the loss of her fiance, Gabriela is outraged at the tabloid headlines. Gabriela, who comes from a privileged background, is largely oblivious to the uglier side of Peruvian politics, and so she interprets the tabloid story in a linear fashion, seeing it as a pack of lies that needs to be corrected rather than a piece of propaganda controlled by Montesinos. After Gabriela creates a scene in the newspaper office, Osman orders her dragged outside, and there she waits for hours, determined to talk to the journalist who wrote the story about Guido.

Angela notes Gabriela’s tenacious, patient presence outside of the building, and she approaches Gabriela. Is she driven by curiosity, a spark of compassion, or is she motivated by the urge to pop Gabriela’s innocent illusions about Peruvian society? After meeting Angela, the two girls–similar age but from opposite backgrounds–strike up a relationship. These two characters are both fascinating women, and their relationship is at the heart of this incredible film.

Angela has no illusions, is tough and jaded. While she contemplates ambition, she’s lost her drive, and her editor bitches at her for her lack of enthusiasm without realizing that he is responsible for her attitude. With all those sleazy stories she’s told to write, she’s world-weary enough to realize that she’s caught in a maze of corruption, and that fighting against it is futile. But then she meets Gabriela–a girl who comes from a protected, cosseted environment, but who will not rest until she has revenge. Confronted with Gabriela’s naivete, Angela is at first brusque but then she becomes curious about Gabriela. This curiosity is tinged with a protective edge.

Gabriela discovers that tapes exist of Guido’s death, and Montesinos, who had a penchant for taping his illegal activities–ordered the torture and murder (termed ‘medical operations’)–along with video commemoration of the killing.

Ultimately this is a tragic story, immensely sad and incredibly disturbing. But at the same time there’s beauty here–Gabriela’s single minded, obsessive desire to meet Guido’s killers and her calm acceptance of her inevitable fate. To her, giving her life is worth the risk if she can clear Guido’s name and catch his killers. Angela, at first, dismisses Gabriela as a lightweight, incapable of holding her own on the streets, but Gabriela possesses what Angela lacks–a belief system, and that gives her strength and makes her impervious to fear. Common sense and a strong sense of self-preservation would hinder Angela from undertaking the sort of risks Gabriela takes, and Gabriela continues to surprise Angela.

The only film I can compare to Mariposa Negra is George Sluizer’s Dutch film Spoorloos (the American version starring Jeff Bridges is The Vanishing) in which the main character, Rex Hofman possesses the same sort of single-minded obsession as Gabriela. There is simply no peace in this life, on this planet until Gabriela completes–or fails–her mission. Obsession usually causes stress and often-erratic behavior, but in Mariposa Negra, Gabriela’s obsessive quest to avenge Guido actually gives her peace and an unnerving otherworldly serenity. Gabriela’s aura of innocence adds to the film’s strong sense of fatalism.

Mariposa Negra from director Francisco J. Lombardi highlights a dark period in Peru’s history. The downfall of Montesinos eventually came as the result of the exposure of his secret videotape stash by Peruvian journalists who were brave enough to expose Montesinos via television and risk the consequences.

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Pinochet’s Last Stand (2006)

“I’m hounded by Communists.”

You wouldn’t catch me cozying up to a right-wing fascist dictator responsible for the murders and torture of 1000s of people, but apparently good old Margaret Thatcher couldn’t wait to squeeze in for a photo shoot in one scene of the HBO-BBC made-for-television film Pinochet’s Last Stand  (AKA Pinochet in Suburbia) The title, by the way, has an ironic meaning that should become clear by the film’s conclusion.

The film charts the former leader of Chile, Pinochet’s 1998 trip to England, the struggles of human rights groups to detain him in Britain pending extradition to Spain to answer for his crimes, and the legal wrangle that took place. It’s not exactly gripping drama, but this is an interesting film nonetheless for the questions it raises. Pinochet (Derek Jacobi) is depicted as a cunning, arrogant and egotistical old git who stalwartly believes that he is above the law, above any sort of ‘moral’ justice, and does not have to answer for any of his actions. Of course this is the man who took over Chile after the suicide of Allende, and with Socialist president Allende out of the way, Pinochet swept away and “disappeared” anyone leftie he could get his hands on. Of course, with someone like Pinochet, most people are lefties, so that kept the field wide open.

The film depicts the shenanigans behind the legal maneuvers, and the pressures brought to bear against Home Secretary Jack Straw (Michael Maloney). There’s pressure from the US (Bush, the Elder) to hand Pinochet back to Chile (after all the US had supported the overthrow of Allende), and on the other side of the fence, there’s Amnesty International. Then there’s Baroness Thatcher nauseatingly helping Pinochet with his image-makeover. The two old fascists have a cozy time of it together. The film shows how fascists remain resolute while government lefties (Straw) always cave and make concessions. Tony Blair doesn’t qualify as a leftie even though he’s arguably a member of the Labour Party.

The film touches briefly on the crimes committed by Pinochet, and it’s a shame the film didn’t go into this area with more detail. It’s estimated that over 3,000 people were ‘disappeared’ and about 30,000 tortured. One of the Chilean protestors, Nicole (Yolanda Vazquez) plays a woman haunted by her sister’s rape, torture and subsequent disappearance.

Mainly this film raised some questions for debate in my home. Should Pinochet, for example, have been extradited to Spain for crimes against humanity? Should another country prosecute a dictator (Pinochet in this case) when the man’s own country’s judicial system is willing to turn a blind eye? Of course, there are precedents to consider here–the Nuremberg Trials, for example, and our very own Guantanamo Bay where residents of many countries around the globe are grabbed, locked up and not even tried for the crimes of which they are accused. Should crimes against humanity be tried by another country under the idea of Universal Jurisdiction? It shouldn’t be too surprising that Henry Kissinger opposed such a position.

Ultimately, it’s amazing to see how Pinochet achieved victimhood, but sadly the film failed to raise the outrage the subject matter so clearly warranted, and that’s a pity.

From director Richard Curson Smith

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Filed under British television, Political/social films

Why We Fight (2005)

 “They want to spread democracy around the world on the point of our bayonets.”

Using footage from Eisenhower’s farewell speech to the nation, director Eugene Jarecki’s documentary film Why We Fight includes the departing president’s warning: “we have been compelled to create a permanent armament industry of vast proportions. We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.” Eisenhower, according to interviews with family members, struggled with the growing Military-Industrial Complex, and as an old soldier, he was alarmed by its explosive expansion following WWII. The film examines the roles of all the players in the war food chain–from those who make the bombs, those who design the bombs, those who drop the bombs, those politicians who make the decisions to drop the bombs, and those contractors who profit so well from carnage. On the other side of the coin, the film also includes footage of the results of so-called “precision guided missiles” (and as it turns out, they can be wildly inaccurate), and this includes some fairly gruesome photos of the morgue in Baghdad.

why we fightOn another level, the film examines the background stories of two people touched in different ways by the war in Iraq. There’s a very sincere New Yorker, Wilton Setzer, a retired policeman who lost his son in 9/11. At first, he sought revenge for his son’s death, and like many Americans, he somehow connected the war in Iraq to the bombing of the Twin Towers. Setzer was flabbergasted when he heard Bush admit on television that there was “no connection” and his sense of clear outrage is shattering as he realizes that both his grief and patriotism have been exploited. Another thread follows the story of William Solomon, a young man who decides to enlist in the army following the death of his mother. One of the most interesting observations the film makes about enlisting is that “self-interest” is used to gain recruits, while paradoxically they are then expected to pay the ultimate “self-sacrifice.”

The most powerful statement the film makes, however, is the complete, startling emotional and moral disconnect of those involved with the war-machine of the Military-Industrial Complex. The film interviews humble assembly line bomb makers, and one woman who charmingly says she’s rather be “making toys” for Santa Claus, agrees she’d rather not think about the ultimate goal of the bombs she helps make. Similarly, pilots interviewed gently smile as they recall how proud they felt to be involved in the first air strike in the war on Iraq. Even a weapons designer–a woman forced to flee the debacle in Vietnam, is now ironically employed to design and create weapons that are crafted for maximum destruction. The film follows the war food chain through the huge corporations that benefit from war, the lobbyists, congress and the politicians who need to feed the voters at home with jobs from the Military-Industrial complex.

Undoubtedly, the film is so good because director Jarecki calls upon such a range of participants. Those interviewed include Richard Perle from the so-called New American Century Project, McCain, Gore Vidal, and various military advisors and historians. Lt. Gen Kwiatkowski who resigned from the Pentagon when she could not stomach the disinformation campaign that raged prior to the invasion of Iraq sums it up beautifully: “Why we fight? Because not enough people are standing up and saying I’m not doing this anymore.”

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Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers (2006)

 “Why do they have Cadillac Escalades in Iraq?”

While American and Iraqi families continue to bury their dead and comfort their wounded, the HUGE companies who continue to profit from the extended fiasco in Iraq are laughing all the way to the bank. Yes, those bank deposits in the billions keep rolling in, and shares in companies such as Halliburton and KBR keep skyrocketing. It’s odd, isn’t it, that one slice of the American population (i.e. those in the military) are told to continue to sacrifice, while the CEOs take home fat multi million dollars salaries. Robert Greenwald’s documentary, Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers makes it clear exactly who is cashing in on the slaughter, maiming, and destruction, and it isn’t pretty.

iraq for saleA large portion of the film takes a look at the relatively lowly civilian contractors employed by various companies in Iraq, and then interviews the families of those killed over there. The survivors of those killed–and injured–in Iraq–are understandably bitter as they argue that their loved ones were knowingly placed in dangerous situations by Halliburton, for example. Too large a portion of the film focuses on this aspect of things, and that was unfortunate.

Another section of the film focuses on the civilian contractors employed to interrogate–which is a euphemism for torture–prisoners at Abu Ghraib. While several low-ranking soldiers have been court-martialed for the treatment of Iraqi prisoners, the film reveals that there’s NO accountability for contractors who “interrogate” and kill in the process. They simply walk away from the situation. Various interrogators are interviewed–as well a translator who argues that the translators employed are often not proficient in the language, but that there’s no evaluation of language skills.

The very best–and strongest part of the film focuses on the nitty-gritty details of some of the financial abuse taking place in Iraq. One civilian who was employed by Halliburton breaks down when he explains that contaminated water (tested for malaria, typhus, and giardia) is knowingly given to the troops. Another soldier explains how Halliburton charges $99 for washing a bag full of dirty clothes. And details are given of the burning and destruction of $80,000 vehicles that lack a spare tyre or an oil filter, for example. No oil filter–no problem–just destroy the old vehicle and bill the taxpayers for a new one! Apparently, the system of “cost plus” encourages these companies to run amok with expenses. And that’s underscored by the luxuries the executives of these companies reward themselves with every chance they get.

The documentary also traces the crony system that thrives between the politicians and the companies who are reaping billions off the blood of others. Dollar amounts running into the billions flash on the screen as company after company rake in the profits. This is beyond scandalous–it’s downright criminal. When is someone going to pull the plug on this thievery? And I’ll add my own experience of bills from the war–a friend’s unit stationed in Iraq was given a satellite phone and guess who is going to get the 4 million dollar phone bill?

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Filed under (Anti) War, Documentary, Political/social films