Make It Real
It helps so much as an actor when the conditions around you are real, and this is really cold, and you get that sense of what it’s really like.
—Angelina Jolie, “Behind the Lines”
Ton of energy, when you’re hurling people off, make it real with those sticks. None of this patting. Really sell me on the hitting.
—Martin Campbell, to extras for Food Riot scene, “Behind the Lines”
“Should I stay or should I go?” It’s “London, 1984,” and a vivacious, gowned, and frivolous Sarah (Angelina Jolie) is dancing to a Clash cover, not yet knowing that this lyric will become the question of her life. It will also frame the film, Beyond Borders, in the sense that it means so well, and wants to badly to do right, but it is so stuck in romance conventions that it loses sight of the very political points it means to underline.
While at a benefit ball with her proper British husband Henry (Linus Roache), she first lays eyes on Dr. Nick Callahan (Clive Owen), who crashes the swanky fete with a crew of fellow white aid workers and a tiny Ethiopian child called Jojo. “Now here’s an interesting thing,” says director Martin Campbell during the commentary track, with producer Lloyd Phillips, on Paramount’s DVD. “This little boy that Clive brings into the room: very skinny, looks like he’s starving. In fact, he’s healthy, this kid, he was 10 years old. It took forever to find somebody this skinny. The truth was, he was a boy with allergies.”
The truth is shifty throughout Beyond Borders, primarily because its fiction is filtered through Sarah’s eyes. She watches, rapt, as Nick accuses the ball’s patron of withdrawing funds from his non-profit relief agency (a non-government organization, or NGO), currently struggling to save lives in famine-ravaged Ethiopia. Nick’s performance is only amplified when one of the guests tosses a banana at Jojo (Campbell notes that the child playing Jojo was specifically allergic to bananas, and so they made a chocolate banana for him to eat for the scene). Nick goes on to use this vile and blatantly racist gesture to showcase his own sensitivity and self-consciousness, inviting Jojo to play “monkey” for the audience, just as the cops bust in and drag off all the protestors, including young Jojo, who, ripped from Nick’s presumably caring arms, meets a terrible fate.
The scene inspires Sarah to do a right thing, that is, leave her comfy urban environs for the deserts of Ethiopia, bearing truckloads of food. Sarah’s reporter sister Charlotte (Teri Polo) comes to talk with her about it and provide support (here on the commentary track, Campbell and Phillips can’t stop themselves from discussing Polo’s “over the top” checkered coat and Jolie’s short wig: “She looks as cute as hell”). Sarah argues with her husband about her new sense of mission: “Don’t go running off to some hole in Africa just to salve your conscience, warns Henry, “It’s not the most grownup thing to do.”
Sarah’s ambitions also speak to the many problems in Beyond Borders, a well-meaning but often tactless “romance.” Set against “the backdrop of the world’s most dangerous hot spots” (this according to the press notes), it posits white aid workers, circa 1984 to ‘95, hopping from horror to horror, in Ethiopia, Cambodia (during Pol Pot’s genocidal campaign), and at last Chechnya (these locations approximated by Namibia, Thailand, Montreal, and Quebec Provence).
As they endeavor to save “third world” victims of famine, war, disease, displacement, and drought, the workers run up against local governments, gangs, and guerillas, as well as the CIA; desperate for money, Nick collaborates with this odious agency, embodied by the snotty and frankly vicious Steiger (Yorick Van Wageningen), in a weapons-running scheme. The plot point leads to a couple of “action” type scenes (and understandably bothers real life NGO workers, who protest that such depiction impairs their efforts to organize legitimate funding). Nick’s brief interactions with indigenous activists in each spot hardly quells the film’s celebratory image of noble whites doing noble work, as victims appear unable to save themselves; this only supports a familiar imperial fiction. (Tellingly and predictably, the film does not mention disasters effected by U.S. or U.K. activities.)
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t underline the fact of ongoing devastations around the world, or that the determined workers don’t also learn something about their own limits as they struggle against mostly human-made iniquity. But such background—children with caved-in chests, a baby playing with a grenade handed him by the Khmer Rouge—also make the supposed sweep of the love story looks increasingly silly, as it draws toward a climax that might be most charitably described as “extravagant.” Similarly, the first few shots in Namibia are stunningly picturesque; as Campbell says of trucks crossing an endless dry expanse, “This is a shot I love, it’s very David Lean, this very kind of almost lunar landscape, which looks so wonderful.” It does, but the romance is distracting.
The DVD includes several featurettes that exacerbate this disparity, between the filmmakers’ stated intention and the film’s effects. In “Writing Beyond Borders: A Conversation with Screenwriter Caspian Tredwell-Owen,” the screenwriter asserts, “What I try to bring across in the movie is that the relief workers are put in positions where they’re forced to decide between the lesser of two evils. There is no right answer.” While it’s not precisely profound, the documentary does lay out some appropriate moral confusions (Oliver Stone was involved in the project early on, but the DVD doesn’t explain how it fell apart, and one can only imagine how different that movie would have been.) A less thoughtful piece, “Angelina: Goodwill Ambassador,” has her discussing the UNHCR, “dealing with” refugees in over 120 countries, and insists, “The refugees I’ve met have completely changed my life; they’ve taught me about a strength and of will and spirit that I knew nothing about”).
You know she means well, and she has ‘raised awareness,” probably. She also talks some more in “Behind the Lines,” a two-part, 36-minute “making of” documentary, begins in Montreal, standing in for Grozny, Chechnya, as the narrator describes the “epic love story” covering three continents and 10 years, with each “era” having its “own look” (just how you find multiple “eras” in 10 years is a question). Many of the extras, Jolie notes, come from “war-torn” countries, and she hopes that the working on the set isn’t a “bad experience” that evokes “a horrible memory for them.” She fidgets in the snow: I” don’t know, you’d have to ask them.” At which point the documentary cuts to someone who appears to be a refugee, who remains unnamed (unlike the interviewed crewmembers and Jolie), whose words are translated by the second assistant director: “When he arrived on the set, for him of course, it’s not at all this Hollywood business. It reminds him of what happened. The first time it was very hard on him.”
Real-life relief worker Nick Winer (also, “Camp Consultant, Africa,” for the film), comments on what’s not visible in this fiction: “The business of suffering is interesting because the suffering always seems to happen with an extraordinary amount of dignity.” At least Campbell appears to understand his own responsibility. Sitting in the Namibian desert, he says, “You know, we’re making a movie, we’re not making a documentary. And sometimes, we’ve got to bend the truth a little bit, obviously. That funny noise you’re hearing is people sweeping my sand. If you want to pan across there and have a quick look-see? [The camera shows men raking sand.] ‘Cause I want it all to look virgin, all to look nice instead of, you know 400 crewmembers having tramped all over it.”
Sarah’s Ethiopian adventures include getting educated by her female truck driver (“Death is everywhere”), wearing pristine white outfits, and cradling a starving child as his mother lies dying nearby. This child, reassures Campbell, was healthy and pot-bellied, made cadaverous by digital means. While the CGI is obvious enough to be distracting, the director’s explanation further spares you the troubling idea of an actual starving body. But the process also raises questions as to “truth,” not essential in a fiction film, but also as to what’s at stake in seeing trauma and tragedy, for whom.
The film is at least partly aware of this difficulty. When Sarah is suitably horrified by the spectacle, she presses Nick to help her care for him. Angry at her swooping in without context or scheme, he calls her on her own intentions: “I see, you pay for these trucks, so I have to indulge some fucking white girl’s idea of heroism, right? Well, why stop there? Do you want a picture? I can get you a picture of “poor little rich girl holds dying black baby. You do your hair right, you’ll look great.” (Nick’s stunning refusal to care for young Tula reportedly runs counter to relief workers’ usual practice.) The tensions he voices—between privilege and responsibility, right and arrogance—are surely worth contemplating, but Beyond Borders can’t take the time. It has a romance to kindle.
By the time Sarah leaves this camp, she’s fallen hard for dashing Nick and bonded with his earnest partner, Elliott (Noah Emmerich), who is specifically denoted as Buddhist and who sets her up to work for London’s UNHCR office (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). Her work is surely compelling, as is Nick’s, but the movie uses their interests as ways to symbolize their repressed and mutual passion for one another—as if they can’t carry on their efforts are not dramatic enough in themselves.
So moved is Sarah by Nick’s passion (he admits here that he erred by bringing Jojo to London) that even as she has an adorable son back home with her dreary, jobless, and conveniently unfaithful husband, she finds herself thinking of Nick every day while working at the London UNHCR office. She finds the means and time to see Nick when the story arc demands, and so she travels to the jungles of Cambodia, where she witnesses Khmer Rouge atrocities. She undertakes a final trip to wintry Chechnya when she learns that Nick has disappeared. Using extremely expedient connections assembled by Charlotte, Sarah follows Nick to the snowy wilds. Sarah braves resident commanders, trigger-happy militants, and landmines to seek out her man.
For all its obvious investment in showing the terrible truths of global catastrophes, displaced peoples and refugees, and terrible vicissitudes of war, Beyond Borders is stuck within the exceedingly familiar borders of Sarah’s drama. As her voiceover asks, “I wonder, do we all know where we belong?” Even as she finds her place, Beyond Borders can’t really get at the more pressing question: Who is this “we” it represents?