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By Bryan Newbury
January 1, 2007

Disarm gives the viewer some indicators that it is what we might refer to as an “activist” film. The primary image associated with it are Afghan children standing in front of a wall… one of what used to be four… with the title stenciled in black spray paint. The score is provided by Brendan Canty of Fugazi. That spray paint stencil is used as the title image in the opening credits, with participants from the affected nations painting it on walls, tanks and other iconic images of war and waste. This presentation gives the title itself a character more of demand than display.

This judgment is soon rebuffed by the work presented. Disarm takes us to the hot spots of antipersonnel mining, and subsequent de-mining, and does so with impressively athletic pace. We begin at the Myanmar-Thai border. As an official explains, the use of cameras in the area is illegal. Given the reputation of the government in Myanmar, one senses that the footage we see was gained at some peril.

From there, they set off to Sarajevo. The scenes from Bosnia and Herzegovina do best to illustrate a key point Wareham and Liu are driving at. Namely, that the horrific irony of the practice of mining is that though it serves a limited military purpose, which few fighters would choose to do without, the people who fall prey to the devices are overwhelmingly civilian and usually come across the mines in peace time. In Bosnia and Afghanistan alike, the de-mining is done best by men who laid the things in the first place. One Bosnian soldier reflects upon the inevitability of digging up some he has set.

The second key point, which Disarm succeeds in making, is that the subject of land mines seems to deter from the principle point of the argument: the victims. As scenes from Kabul and Colombia show, even if the nations of the world had the will to eradicate the munitions from the face of the earth, there would still be an overwhelming need to assist those already afflicted by them.

This goes beyond replacing limbs. Some moving footage comes from an interview of Dr. Alberto Cairo of the ICRC Kabul clinic. Getting rid of the mines isn’t enough. Providing medical services, prostheses and wheelchairs, is essential. But not enough. Cairo explains that at this point he doesn’t need more wheelchairs. As far as prosthetic limbs are concerned, their production is the biggest industry in Afghanistan. For the scores of maimed men, women and children we see in Disarm, it is necessary to rehabilitate entire lives and livelihoods. Losing a limb in a fully industrialized nation is bad enough. Having it happen in an impoverished and mountainous country creates a whole new hornet’s nest.

Returning to the first part of the problem, that of the mines themselves, the question of eradication comes up. From the evidence provided in the film and some understanding of the human condition in the Twenty First century, it would be fair to say that antipersonnel mines will be with us for quite a while. As we journey from the war torn countries to the United States, a paradox is revealed.

In Afghanistan, the filmmakers interviewed a Northern Alliance leader who mined (and is now de-mining) the Shomali Valley. His take on the subject doesn’t allow for much hope. In his situation, as with the Bosnians and others, the weapon is an extremely useful tool. Without it, an undermanned and outgunned group would be in serious trouble on the front. As long as there is asymmetric warfare, and there are no signs of an end to such a thing, mining will be a valid military strategy.

The paradox being that among the parties steadfastly refusing to take part in anti-mine treaties, most are “them that got the guns.” The United States, China and Russia are key opponents to eradication. While it is obvious that the besieged Bosnians or Afghans had little recourse, there is little sense to make of countries such as our own holding out. In typical American fashion, our answer seems to be making the bombs smart. It’s a technology issue, after all. As Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams points out in the final scenes from Iraq, this stubborn approach has been disastrous for U.S. forces. How many improvised explosive devices would be around if Iraq had destroyed its mines ten years ago? The role of the Korean peninsula in U.S. policy isn’t highlighted. Shame that it isn’t. A brief cost-benefit analysis on the munitions would likely draw one to the conclusion that the usefulness of mines in the DMZ is substantially outweighed by their toll worldwide. In Afghanistan alone, it will be a major undertaking to see to the victims of mines. That is, if the United States does the decent thing.

Stylistically, Disarm deserves a good deal of credit. It manages to sustain the tension the subject demands without surrendering to sensationalism. This film could easily be one of wholesale gore. The violence antipersonnel mines visit upon populations across the globe is presented, but depictions are thankfully restrained. The shooting is excellent. Whether intended or not, Liu’s presentation compels the viewer to contemplate the beauty of these locations and ask himself how this species is base enough to create a hell like Shomali Valley out of the paradise surrounding it. With a subject such as this, one can’t be blamed for hoping in advance that the visuals would disappear immediately after viewing. Instead, there is a string of arresting images that most will wish to keep with them.

As for the topic, it is handled deftly. We sense that Wareham and company aren’t delusional enough to suspect this film or any other will rid us of these instruments of destruction. In contrast to what could be preconceived, what we get is a representation of fact and a reminder that the biological entities impaired or killed by the devices are the real issue to tackle. As Williams points out, preventing more misery resulting from land mines requires, essentially, an end to warfare. While it is surely tempting for a socially aware filmmaker to sully cinematic achievement with a “call to action” or a host of hopeful platitudes, the makers of Disarm display a respect for the audience’s intelligence rather than taking that bait.


Color, 67 minutes, 2005

Mary Wareham & Brian Liu, Next Step Productions & Toolbox D.C.

Official Film Site

Isna on September 18th, 2015 at 2:33 am 

I love what you’re doing. It’s amazinging and beiftauul. Is there anyway you could provide me with an email address so I can send you a picture of a 65 year old former model and currently a school teacher that is 6’10 and African American. She embraces her age and does it well with style and grace.

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