Independent journalist and author Antony Loewenstein has made a name for himself writing about war crimes, human rights abuses and corporate profiteering.
For the first time, he is seeking to speak truth to power through the medium of film — with his first documentary Disaster Capitalism now in production. Loewenstein is also releasing a new book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe through Verso in September.
Green Left Weekly‘s Paul Benedek spoke to Loewenstein
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Until now, your work has been writing book and articles. What made you move into film with Disaster Capitalism?
For many years, I have realised the power of film and TV to emotionally reach people in ways that the written word cannot.
After a number of books that I know could have benefitted from a complimentary film — My Israel Question would have shown the vicious reality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and The Blogging Revolution would have featured some of the inspiring dissidents challenging repressive regimes globally — I started talking to Australian filmmakers in 2010/2011 when I began researching my book, Profits of Doom.
To cut a long story short, various partnerships started and stalled, various local funders showed interest, then didn’t. I realised that I should just start filming myself as I was visiting Christmas Island and Curtin detention centres, Haiti, Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
I shot on an HD handycam, the images looked fine, but I was keen to collaborate with a filmmaker to shape my vision.
Who is the team you are working with on the film and what role/s are each of you playing?
In 2012, I met New York filmmaker Thor Neureiter through a mutual friend and we visited Haiti together. Since then we’ve been filming, raising money and crafting the documentary from different corners of the globe. Norwegian filmmaker Spencer Austad, based in Australia, is also involved, and he filmed me in Bougainville and Afghanistan.
Thor is the director, producer and cinematographer, Spencer is the co-cinematographer and I’m the presenter, writer and co-producer. Sydney-based production company Media Stockade are our producing partners.
Briefly sum up the theme of Disaster Capitalism, and why this is an important film to make.
The film features three countries: Papua New Guinea, Haiti and Afghanistan. We are investigating the reality and rhetoric of aid and development and how they shape, affect and change people’s lives, often negatively.
Natural resources are often cited as the best way to help developing nations thrive, but in all three nations minerals and mining are leading to greater poverty and displacement. Despite all these problems, many people are making serious money. This is an inevitable result of exploitative policies that aim to enrich local and foreign contractors at the expense of the population.
The aim of the film isn’t simply to shock and seduce people, it’s shot in a beautiful way, but to show how these industries could be different. Our outreach plan includes showing the film to a wide audience, from cinemas to film-festivals, the UN and aid workers and screenings in Haiti, PNG and Afghanistan themselves.
Where has the film taken you, who have you met and what are one or two highlights?
We have travelled twice to each country, Haiti, PNG and Afghanistan, and each time we wanted to have local characters tell their stories, about how the promises from the international community regularly falls short.
One of the highlights was recently visiting Logar Province in Afghanistan, one of the hearts of the insurgency, to meet villagers displaced by the Chinese-owned Aynak mine nearby, one of the largest copper deposits in the world.
The Afghan and Chinese governments and the Chinese company all claim the mine is beneficial to the country, but we saw and heard angry village elders explaining how they faced violence, uncertainty and poverty because of it.
As a film team working very differently from established or mainstream film production companies, what technology has the team used and what have been the challenges on the shoot?
The challenges are immense because we have faced rugged terrain, an insurgency, poverty and access issues. We have shot on a Sony FS100 camera and Black Magic Design camera, Go Pro, iPhone 6 and other devices.
What avenues have you used to fund the film until now, and what are the plans for further funding to complete it?
We have self-funded, raised money on Kickstarter and successfully applied for money from the Bertha Foundation, funders of Citizen Four, Dirty Wars and other successful documentaries. We’re currently speaking to local and international funders to raise the remaining amount. If readers would like to help, they know where to find me.
Where is the film currently at, what needs to be done to complete it and when are you aiming to release it?
Principal shooting of the film is complete, with only minor shooting still required in a few locations. We are raising funds for post-production and hope to have this completed within the next six to 12 months. This project began four to five years ago, so we’re committed to finishing it as soon as possible.
Where do you plan on the film ending up, do you have a distributor and what is your distribution plan?
Our aim for the film is for a global cinema release, to be seen by as many people as possible. We will aim for film festivals, TV, Al Jazeera, BBC, Netflix and a range of other options.
We do not yet have a distributor but are talking to a few. The distribution and outreach plan revolves around changing the conversation on aid and development in a way that challenges the gatekeepers in that industry.
To achieve this goal, we’ll have an active social media campaign and partner with local and global human rights NGOs to spread the message. We’ll also use our various media platforms to discuss the film.
Do you think film is a medium that other progressive journalists and writers should be looking at moving into?
Although making a documentary is a slow process, I certainly believe in its power and worth to compliment other types of writing and activism. There’s a reason Naomi Klein is making a documentary version of her book, This Changes Everything, on climate change. She wants to reach large audiences with a message.
Disaster Capitalism has similar goals because these issues don’t just affect elite policy makers at the UN or NGOs. As our film shows, locals are often negatively affected by policy decisions made in Western nations. We are all complicit.