The laptop or smartphone you’re using to read this article now almost certainly has cassiterite in it: cassiterite is a mineral which is refined into tin and used in loads of electronics. The Democratic Republic of Congo has a wealth of cassiterite within its borders, but these remote mines are overseen by armed groups who exploit the locals working and living near the mines. For over a decade, children have worked in unsafe mines, and locals have been taxed exorbitant amounts and controlled through unchecked violence. The human rights abuses abound, and countless Congolese are being killed and raped with little hope for change.
Danish director Frank Poulsen’s documentary Blood In The Mobile aims to increase awareness of this issue of conflict minerals. His approach is that of a Michael Moore-esque Average Joe who suspects his phone may contain said minerals. So, as a conscientious consumer and a filmmaker – not an activist – he documents his quest to hold his phone company’s feet to the fire.
Sadly, Poulsen’s insistence on framing the film as a personal vendetta, filming every moment including his awkward arguments with various official representatives, undermines his project’s credibility. The film opens with him at a mobile phone expo demanding corporate responsibility statements from reps of his phone company, Nokia. His message is clearly: Look at all these unfeeling, posh corporate people profiting from people dying in Africa! His reaction to their waffling responses is to plunge into Congo to find the answers for himself. We should be rooting for him, but his quest seems so naive that we instead feel more dread about how he’ll confront the imminent dangers a white man with a camera will surely face than hope that he’ll find what he’s looking for.
On the plus side, Poulsen does capture rare footage by persisting in his perilous visit to a cassiterite mine in Bisie, and also obtains pertinent soundbites from apt people including reps from Nokia and concerned NGOs, a mineral expert and a US Congressman submitting a bill improving regulations on the mineral trade. However, his audacity is more worrisome than admirable, and his callow conversations expose a conspicuous lack of depth and context in the film that is both disappointing and frustrating to watch.
What Poulsen never really manages to communicate is that improving the circumstances of the Congolese exploited by mines is a treacherously complicated process. The armed groups controlling the mines now are actually part of the Congolese army, requiring a political and possibly military approach on an international scale. Poulsen neglects to explore this issue in the film at all, and instead focuses on corporate responsibility and capitalist greed. But the electronics industry is working on implementing protocol to track all elements of their supply chain, and enforcing those audits is no small task. While these actions may be slow-going and late-in-the-day, corporations cannot stop the Congolese Army by themselves. Poulsen simply does not appear to accept this in his documentary, and is instead hell-bent on blaming Nokia – just one of many in the massive electronics sector, and actually known for trying to lead the industry in social responsibility – for the atrocities in the Congo.
Poulsen’s film clearly intends to demonize Nokia as a heartless multinational, rather than educate the public about conflict minerals. The film’s official website tries to mitigate this, as it has plenty more cold, hard facts about the issue than are actually included in the finished film. Even so, all this is a bit outdated in light of the impact of the recent Dodd-Frank law which aims to make the conflict mineral trade less profitable, though has not yet reduced the region’s violence. Consequently, Blood In The Mobile is more effective as a portrait of an intrepid – if egocentric and brazen – filmmaker’s struggles than an investigative documentary about a tragic situation. A missed opportunity.
Blood In The Mobile is available now on DVD and iTunes via Dogwoof.