Gritty and terrifying. These are the two adjective best describing the world that Vice’s Guide to Travel depicts. In the Vice Guide to Travel, which is presented as a series of seven short documentaries, ranging from five to 12 minutes, founders, editors and writers from the OG of DIY magazines travel to parts of the world CNN and Fox News pretend don’t exist in search of realities Rupert Murdoch wants kept hidden.
What they discover is horrifying. In Bulgaria, co-founder Shane Smith locates a man who bought a “dirty bomb” on the black market and buried it in his mom’s garden. His purchase could eradiate New York City, killing hundreds of thousands and rendering the city unlivable. In Palestine, Smith listens as PLO boyscout leaders encourage their charges to sing songs about blowing up the “Israeli dogs”. In Pakistan, Vice’s other co-founder Suroosh Alvi travels to the world’s largest illegal arms market, where peasants make guns by the thousands with their bare hands. The extras are much of the same, consisting of short features ranging in subject matter from the Black Lips’ Cole dancing through a Ugandan jungle to subjects walking through a Bulgarian town, pointing out the lack of running water, electricity, and waste management.
It’s typical Vice style, combining expertly shot video with edgy, often disturbing content. These guys and gals are not messing around, traveling to some of the cruelest and most unusual places in the world. To get to the remote Pakistan location, Alvi’s mom had to speak with people from her native country to recruit a militia to protect her son. In Chernobyl, Smith and correspondent Pella Kagerman travel to reactor #4, the site of the fateful meltdown, where levels of radiation are 40 times higher than normal. For sheer ballsiness, the cast and crew deserve serious bonus points.
Yet, while they spotlight the problems, they don’t offer any solutions. Near the end of the documentary about going to see the Hezbollah, Spike Jonze captures the sentiment in the editing room when he explains that “I don’t feel like I know how to handle [any of these problems].” Film editor Jesse Person adds “it’s going to go on forever,” and the sense of helplessness is complete and utter. The Vice Guide to Travel makes you feel as if the Israelis and the Hezbollah will never stop fighting, despite everyone’s efforts at Vice‘s to provide at least provide an avenue for remedy by exposing what is happening at ground level.
The truth of the matter is that, as much as the editors would like to believe otherwise, this movie will have little impact on the course of history. Jonze and Co. can make all the bombastic, depressing statements about the places they traveled, but they won’t change the world. The reality is that Vice Guide to Travel is less groundbreaking than it first appears. We may not know the specifics, but we already understand that relations between the Israelis and the PLO are strained, the slums of Rio de Janeiro are crowded and dangerous, and Beirut is a scary place. We don’t need Vice to self-righteously explain this to us.
If Vice Guide to Travel is to be believed, the third world, and much of the first, is beyond repair. But looking deeper, this is actually not the case. In each location, the gang finds good people amidst the chaos. In Paraguay, a local offers correspondent Derrick Beckles shelter, food, and advice. The woman, named Nilda Halke, then begins to regal the writer with tales of Josef Mengele, the Nazi concentration camp doctor who fled to the settlement after World War II and whom Beckles came to find. Seeing her generosity, other locals come out of the woodwork to share enlightening stories about the evil physician who played soccer with a loaded pistol in his hand. Without these kind souls, Beckles’ story wouldn’t go anywhere.
A similar occurrence takes place in Rio, where favela residents offer Crutchfield excellent barbeque and tell him stories about their lives. Only later does the journalist realize that the previous night he and his cameramen heard gunfire on the same street. It’s a shocking revelation, given the generosity of the locals, and sums up the paradox of Vice Guide to Travel . The Vice writers went looking for trouble and, while they found it, they also stumbled upon kindness at every turn.
The intention of Guide was to show us a world full of problems. To some extent, the producers succeeded admirably. Every vignette makes you want to explore the situation in greater detail. They may not provide any solutions, but they do whet your appetite for learning more about the pain and suffering occurring in planet Earth’s parts unknown.
Yet as much as Smith and the rest want us to believe the world is all bad, that’s simply not the case. Ironically, Vice Guide to Travel shows this equally well, or better, than it addresses the problems. The Vice kids, lost and out of place, had to rely on the kindness of strangers to locate the bad places and live to tell about them. The lesson: There are some fucked up parts of the world, but don’t despair; it’s also full of good people, even if you have to travel to Pakistan to find them.