[7 April 2010]
“Everyone lives by selling something.”—Robert Louis Stevenson
To some, war is hell. To others, it’s a misfortune. To yet others, it’s an unparalleled business opportunity.
The first characterization is most often attributed to the American Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman who had firsthand knowledge of war as a combatant. The second is from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, and represents the point of view of “the poor and simple people” of Germany on the outbreak of World War I, but could apply just as well to most of the population living in any country where a war takes place. The third represents the attitude of many who profit from war while themselves remaining unscathed, including Fidelis Cloer, the central character in Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s documentary Bulletproof Salesman.
Cloer is an armored vehicle salesman for a German company and is not hesitant to point out that in his line of work, peace is not good news. The Iraq War, on the other hand, is the best news imaginable. As the weapon of choice for the insurgents became IEDs (a.k.a., roadside bombs) driving anywhere in Iraq in an unarmored vehicle became a suicide mission. Ka-ching! While Cloer is the first to admit that there is no such thing as a completely car, his company offers a product which can stand up to amazing hails of bullets and explosives and hence is in high demand in trouble zones around the world.
Bulletproof Salesman, whose prevailing mood is that of a black comedy, is probably the most light-hearted documentary that will ever be made about the Iraq War. Cloer is an engaging and personable character, as you might expect a master salesman to be, and he truly seems to enjoy his line of work and believe in the product he is selling. In fact, from his point of view he’s a salesman like any other who calls on potential customers, demonstrates his product (at one point by sitting inside an armored car while someone shoots at it) and points out why his product is superior to that offered by his competitors.
The very picture of self-confidence, Cloer is not shy about dispensing nuggets of wisdom to the camera: “You can not sell from a desk” “Security is a commodity” “Trust the customer and he will trust you” and so on. There’s also this little bit of advice, which reminds you of the context of his particular business: “Never enter a gunfight you can’t win”.
The possibility of gunfights, or other serious trouble, is always present in Bulletproof Salesman and adds a frisson of excitement to otherwise ordinary activities, although no one we’ve come to know and care about in this film is ever shown in serious peril. Bulletproof Salesman is a film about war as good business, while the hell and misfortune of war are suggested primarily by the numerous destroyed buildings seen regularly in the background.
Filming for Bulletproof Salesman began in 2003 after Tucker and Epperlein were invited to travel overland from Amman, Jordan to Baghdad with Cloer as he went about his business making sales calls and delivering armored cars. In 2004, after the overland route from Jordan became too dangerous, Tucker and Epperlein shifted their attention toward producing Gunner Palace and The Prisoner or: How I planned to Kill Tony Blair in Baghdad.
They resumed working on Bulletproof Salesman in 2006, filming the armored cars being tested in Germany and accompanying Cloer to Afghanistan where demand for his vehicles was also booming. Throughout the film Tucker and Epperlein alternate between action footage and arty interviews of Cloer (wearing a black shirt and shot against a white background) which lend a certain Errol Morris feel to the film.
Bulletproof Salesman is an entertaining film and it’s difficult not to get caught up in Cloer’s enthusiasm for his product. It’s a good thing when armored cars are attacked, you see, because that’s the only way the company can learn what they need to improve. Too bad about the people who die in the attacks, but from Cloer’s point of view that’s not really his concern. As he puts it, “people have to die to improve the product.” While this is in one sense a legitimate attitude (he didn’t start the war and you could argue that he’s no more a profiteer than someone selling medical supplies to treat the wounded), the fact that Tucker and Epperlein seem to have deliberately avoided asking hard questions results in a film which often seems like an infomercial and which will no doubt bring Cloer and his firm some additional business.
There are no extras on the DVD of Bulletproof Salesman except a chapter index. That’s a shame because a director’s commentary or even a timeline and short making-of feature would be welcome to provide more information about the genesis of the idea for this film as well as when and where particular segments were shot. On the other hand, it may be that the lack of clear chronology is at least partly deliberate: the true subject of this film is the absurdity of war rather than the career of one salesman or the course of any particular conflict.