While it is a film about a man who profits from war, it’s more a film about the pathology of violence.
Man, this is a story for the movies!
— Fidelis Cloer
“At the end of the beginning of a war,” Fidelis Cloer is on the phone. He’s got on sunglasses and sharp black suit, palm trees loom over him. The man he’s calling, a client, is “out of the country,” he learns, but Cloer has just arrived, in Jordan en route to Iraq in 2003, just after the war has started. He has armed vehicles to sell, and knows he’s got a market. Mouthing his unlit cigarette, he’s briefly distracted by a young man standing in front of his hotel with a sign that reads “Peace.” The frame freezes, with a title card smacked across it that repeats Cloer’s comment: “Peace? Go away. I want war.”
This scene comes at the beginning of Bulletproof Salesman, now (at last!) available on DVD after making festival rounds for almost two years. Partly a portrait of Cloer and partly an excavation of the world that produces him, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s excellent documentary examines the business of war. As Cloer describes his means and ends, the film, shot over five years, lays out his complex and volatile context. Selling to wealthy clients who include heads of state (Yasser Arafat, he says, as well as Nelson Mandela and the King of Saudi Arabia), Cloer appreciates the dangers they face. “Since the world has become a very small place,” he says, over a montage of explosion websites and bomb-building instructions, “I think we are living in the most dangerous times ever.” If “you” can find anything on the internet, so can “insurgents.” (A headline reads, “Terrorists use Google Maps to Attack UK Troops.”)
Still, he admits upfront, “There’s no such thing as a bulletproof car,” only a car that “protects you against something, but there’s always something that’s bigger than that. We cannot guarantee you that you will survive an attack in the car.” The film cuts from Cloer’s pitch to a vehicle exploding, then surrounded by settling smoke and ash.
And there you have it. A former luxury car salesman, Cloer appreciates the irony of his current situation, his self-awareness at once oddly appealing and a little odious. “We’re not selling cars,” he submits, “We’re selling safety, we’re selling security, we’re selling a concept. We definitely sell a good feeling.” That feeling is in demand in Iraq. “In the beginning, I didn’t see it as a perfect opportunity. I saw it as something a salesman has to do,” he explains over images of his drive into Baghdad, the sun high and shadows deep. “The perfect war, it only became later.” Perfect, because “We expected the situation to worsen and it did pretty quickly.”
As Cloer and Benni, his “sales associate,” make their way over the border, their vehicle is searched for weapons and explosives. The U.S. soldiers find nothing but beer and canned mushrooms. “Good thing they searched the car,” says Benni, “Good thing we don’t have a weapon in he car.” Cut to the back seat, where Cloer loads bullets into his clip. As they drive on, he lights a cigarette and holds his gun in his lap. “Don’t film this,” he says, his hand up in front of the lens. He smiles, reaches for a can of mace, and pretends to spray at the camera. Good times.
In town, they proceed to “meet the competition,” erstwhile GMC Suburbans, now designated secure, with extras including computers and bicycles. Asserting, “It’s not professional to slam the competition,” Cloer instead shows how his product is superior, shooting into one of his Land Cruisers again and again: 619 rounds without penetration. Tucker’s voice can be heard off-screen: “To me it almost seems kind of fanatical,” he says of the testing. Cloer agrees. But there’s a logic to the excess. “When you do a crash test, what do you do? You destroy the car and you want to know what happens to the occupants.” After all, the logic extends, you can only improve the product “if attacks happen.” If no one shoots at a crappy car, you can’t gauge what it needs. At a testing facility somewhere in Bavaria (“I cannot tell you where we are”), the camera pans over a vehicle decimated by bullets and explosives as he describes the effects of secondary projectiles. Clients pay for protection, Cloer observes. “Either you’re dead or you survive. A little bit dead does not exist.”
Still, Bulletproof Salesman reveals, price can be an object. “If you want to protect George Walker Bush,” he says, “You can spend three and a half million for a car, or four million.” But for the troops or contractors in theater, well, spending is limited. (Another headline reminds you of the Blackwater employees who were killed in Falluja, as well as the lawsuits brought against the company by their families.) Such lapses are not Cloer’s responsibility: the choice to buy lies with the clients. “We did a lot of business with Americans,” he reports, and though some clients were killed, “we didn’t lose a single vehicle.”
Ever aware of trends, Cloer moves on, in 2007, to Afghanistan. “You are sending more police trainers,” he assesses, “That automatically means they need more armored cars.” A shot of his hotel room shows a waiter delivering coffee on a silver tray as Cloer does business by phone, off-screen. He describes himself as “the most consistent CNN watcher you can imagine,” because, he explains, “The people who are in the news are most often those who are in need of our product.” As numbers of casualties increase, he knows his business will be affected. “We do not have to create markets, we do not have to create demand.”
Contemplating his status as a profiteer, Cloer is at once practical and philosophical. “Is someone who sells bandages and medicines into war zones a profiteer?” he asks. “Coca Cola is being sold there. Water is being sold there, Burger King is in Iraq. Wars will happen.” He continues speaking over a shot of himself, phone in hand, standing amid rubble and bomb craters. As a child in a red shirt and track pants makes his way through the wreckage behind him, Cloer’s voiceover sums up: “I didn’t contribute in any way to this war, but it’s there. There will always be wars. Wars are there.”