Frank Piasecki Poulsen Interview

Frank Piasecki Poulsen is the man behind Blood In The Mobile, a documentary that investigates the presence of conflict minerals in our mobile phones. The Danish director talks with Soundbite Culture about the link between Eastern Congo’s civil war and our electronic goods, the dangers involved in making a film there and what we can do to effect change as consumers.

Soundbite Culture: Hi there Frank, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Where did you first learn of the presence of blood minerals in our mobile phones? It’s something I’ve never come across in any form of media.

Frank Piasecki Poulsen: Me either. I’d been working a lot in Eastern Congo, so I knew there was a civil war going on, but I didn’t know the phones we buy had anything to do with it. It was actually the film’s producer [Ole Tornbjerg] who heard a rumour when he was travelling in Tanzania for another project of his.

So he checked it out and it turned out to be true. This is not a new story though; the UN Security Council has made several resolutions on this issue dating back to 2001.

SC: Which was one of the points of Blood In The Mobile, that Nokia have known about this since 2001 and what have they done since?

FPP: Yeah, so it’s an old story. Then my producer approached me and asked if I wanted to make a film about this and I immediately thought it was a great idea, so I just said yes. The next thing was to go to Congo and see if I could actually access one of these mines.

SC: How easy was that, in terms of getting the right permits and approval?

FPP: I don’t think easy would be the appropriate word. I’d been working a lot in Africa but have never experienced anything as difficult as trying to make a film in Congo.

SC: Does that mean it took quite a long time to film then?

FPP: Blood In The Mobile was filmed in the course of one year, and from 2009 to 2010 I was in Congo five times.

SC: How much of a leap was it, from finding out that blood minerals are used in our mobile phones to actually making a documentary about this?

FPP: Well, the first time I went to the Congo was to see if it was possible to access the necessary areas in order to make the documentary. Then it was a long development process, from thinking that I would find some local Congolese to be the main character to realising that I wanted to address our part of it here in the western world. In order to connect all these dots, I decided to use myself as a character in the film.

SC: Is that why you chose your own mobile provider to investigate, to make it more personal for you.

FPP: Yeah, when I returned from Congo the first time I realised that I could have gone the journalistic way.

SC: Because a lot of the documentary is essentially investigative journalism.

FPP: In a way it is, but you could also say I completely jumped the investigative journalism process. I have to emphasise that I’m not a journalist. The traditional, journalistic way would have been to track the conflict minerals all the way to Asia, and then go back to Nokia or some other electronic producer and slap the smoking gun on the table.

But I completely jumped that. I just saw the mine and went straight to Nokia and was like “Ok, you are my phone company – how are you dealing with this?”. And they refused to take part in the film, and I used more than a year trying to persuade them with no success at all. So in the end, I just walked into the reception and insisted that they give me some answers.

SC: The first Nokia scene we see in Blood In The Mobile is quite hostile, but it seemed like they became more cooperative as the film progressed?

FPP: Yeah, I spent more than a year calling Nokia every week; not even once did I get someone on the phone who could just discuss the possibility of them participating in this film. I talked to a lot of receptionists that transferred me to a lot of communications people that consequently never picked up the phone.

SC: Which is funny for Nokia.

FPP: Right, it’s really strange for a phone company. When I left messages, they wouldn’t get back to me and when I emailed them instead, they’d send me a two line response declining to take part in the project.

At some point they said we could have a telephone conference, but then I reminded them that I was making a documentary and asked whether I could film it. I never heard from them after that.

So they were really reluctant to take part in this process, which was too bad I think because Blood In The Mobile would have been much more interesting if I was working with Nokia, trying to see how they could solve this problem. Then we could have got much deeper into the real issues of conflict minerals and why this is so difficult to solve.

But now it’s just a film about a company that doesn’t want to solve the problem.

SC: That’s how a lot of documentary’s work though, right? Companies are usually very reluctant to engage with film makers at first, but after the public outrage there’s the corporate reaction.

FPP: Well, I was at a seminar in Denmark recently, arranged by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Development Department, and there were all these talks from big corporations and their Corporate Social Responsibility teams.

And this CEO from one of the biggest medical companies in Denmark gave a speech where she very bluntly said the things their CSR team deal with are the ones that are in the media. If there’s media attention, then they have to address it. If not…

SC: So making a documentary about conflict minerals is almost the first step in getting this issue into the media, and then pressuring the companies to do something afterwards?

FPP: I think Blood In The Mobile can be a part of this process, but I have to emphasise I’m standing on the shoulders of organisations like Global Witness, Race For Congo in the US and others that have really been working on this issue for years.

SC: We’ve spoken about the lack of cooperation from Nokia, but how cooperative were the official and unofficial people in Congo?

FPP: The official and unofficial armies were very reluctant to let me film them. I experienced so much crazy shit that we didn’t get on film.

SC: That you weren’t allowed to include, or you didn’t feel like it fitted in with the documentary?

FPP: That I wasn’t allowed to film. In some situations I would let the camera run, even though I wasn’t allowed. But in many situations I considered that simply too dangerous.

Surprisingly enough, the guy I interviewed in the Congo Ministry [who was responsible for approving mining in the country] was one of my favourite moments. He was such a great key to understanding how integrated corruption really is in Congo.

SC: I remember, he didn’t even think there was a problem with owning his own mining company and favouring them in his state role.

FPP: That’s the thing – he was proudly telling me about his private mining company.

SC: How dangerous was it while you were in Congo, especially when investigating the Walikale mines?

FPP: It’s very dangerous to access an area like Eastern Congo, where there has been war for such a long time. There are so many people who are more or less crazy from all the things they’ve witnessed; I mean this [civil war] does something to a human mind.

But we tried to do it as safely as we possibly could, by getting all the permissions from various regional authorities and then playing them off against each other. So instead of waiting for the authorities to come and complain about our filming, we went straight to them whenever we got to a new place to let them know we got permission from their superior department.

The closer we got to mine, the less willing they were to approve our permissions. But because we had their superior’s stamp, they were kind of obliged to. And Congo is a very bureaucratic society, in that they have a lot of respect for stamps, so that helped a lot.

But of course, it’s not without risk to go to these mining areas where you are so far. As one of the guys from the film says, 90 km’s deep in the jungle is no joke. And we really didn’t know how people were going to react. So we had to be very careful and cautious and we did a lot to make it as safe as possible, but at the end of the day you just can’t.

My production company wanted me to have some kind of insurance and it was impossible to buy. Money simply can not buy insurance when you go to Eastern Congo. People say I’m crazy and it’s hard to explain, but I don’t have a death wish. I have family.

SC: Well exactly, as a family man, is it an easy decision to get involved in such a project?

FPP: No. But when I do stuff like this I have a certainty that I will be ok, that I will return home alive and things will be all right. And I think this is also something that I use when I meet people who are really fucked up you have to deal with. They might be armed and there may be yelling, but I’m able to look them in the eye and say “I’ll be ok, you’ll be ok. Let’s find some common ground and get done with what we have to do.”

SC: In your various dealings with both Nokia and the Congolese authorities, which did you find to be the most corrupt?

FPP: [laughs] That’s a funny question. In many ways I think the people in our part of the world are the corrupt ones, aren’t we? If you want to find out who are the corrupted ones, you need to see where the money is going.

SC: It’s almost like the west is the cause, and countries like Eastern Congo are the symptoms that we are exploiting?

FPP: Exactly, yeah, that’s a good sentence. I’ll stick to that, you can quote me for that.

SC: I’ll do that. What do you hope Blood In The Mobile will achieve?

FPP: First of all, I hope it’ll create awareness that our way of life is so dependent on other people. I don’t really care if people take responsibility for what we’re doing in the world on this particular issue or another, but I think that we have what is needed in order to be able to change the course of history much more than people on the other end of these problems.

There are so many issues like this, so many natural resources all around the world that are being extracted in a completely unfair way that does not benefit their local communities at all. And we are the ones benefitting from that. For me, this is the main point.

Of course, when you work with a particular case like this, you get involved with it and I truly hope that things will change on the ground in Eastern Congo. But I think that also, in a more general perspective, we need to wake up and realise that the world hasn’t changed that much since colonial days. It’s structured in a different way, but the outcome is the same. We get all the goods, and they get misery and conflict.

SC: What would you recommend we do as consumers to put pressure on technology companies to change?

FPP: When I’m asked something like this, I always quote a film called Black Gold, which is a great documentary about how we get our coffee in the west. The film makers, Nick and Marc Francis, have a website where they state the four levels of involvement.

The first level is to raise awareness; I hadn’t heard about conflict minerals before I made this, so tell your friends.

The second level is to ask questions; so next time you’re looking for a new phone, ask questions about the products you’re buying.

The third level is to talk to your politicians; demand that they look into this, demand that they start to find solutions to problems like conflict minerals.

And the fourth level, of course, is to join one of the organisations that are working to change this.

SC: Great. One last thing, do you still own your Nokia phone?

FPP: Yes, actually I can show you it right now. It’s the same phone you see me with in Blood In The Mobile. Even though it doesn’t work very well now, I didn’t really feel like buying a new one. I’m hoping I can stick with this til I can get one which is guaranteed conflict mineral free.

SC: And, just to clarify, it’s not just Nokia using these conflict minerals; all the mobile phone companies are doing this.

FPP: Yeah, I have to emphasise that it’s not only Nokia – it’s not only mobile phones. It’s flat screen tv’s, laptops and all kinds of electronic goods.

Jonathan Campbell

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Dates ‘n stuff

November 2011