Those who view his films as compendiums of distorted propaganda may rightly despise Michael Moore, but there’s no denying that his work re-popularized the documentary as an independent art form while effectively promoting his views. Moore and others who followed in his footsteps, such as Morgan Spurlock, whose “Super Size Me” lambasted the fast food industry, created a popular template in which the filmmaker’s personal narrative, interspersed with humor and relentless attempts to expose and thereby belittle the objects of their scorn, set the standard for the genre. But the question for viewers of a newly released film that was created in the spirit of “Roger and Me, ” “Bowling for Columbine” or “Super Size Me” is whether there is an audience for this sort of work if the subject matter is not one that liberals and leftists love to hate.
In “U.N. Me,” Ami Horowitz and Matthew Grof have done just that. Horowitz, the on-screen personality and narrator, takes his audience on an international tour intended to show that the United Nations is a corrupt talking shop that has made a mockery of the ideals that it was created to promote. As “U.N. Me” makes clear, the world body has criminal peacekeepers who fail to protect the innocent, purposely-blind nuclear inspectors, thieves in charge of food programs, and has a Human Rights Council that is a forum for tyrants and murderers.
This may be familiar territory for readers of COMMENTARY, but if the intended audience is the crowd who enjoys the politically skewed humor of Moore and Spurlock’s movies, a great many eyes will be opened. Judging their effort by the standard set by those two, “U.N. Me” must be considered a resounding success. The film combines a low-key sense of righteous indignation at the outrageous behavior it uncovers with humor and paints its subjects as hypocrites and scoundrels. Yet even as we laugh along with Horowitz’s disingenuous attempts to get UN officials to tell the truth about what they are doing, one can’t help but wonder if this is a story most lovers of indie documentaries want to hear, because its point is to debunk an institution deeply loved by liberals and President Obama.
To get past the prejudices of filmgoers predisposed to dismiss criticism of the U.N., Horowitz concentrates his fire on the causes that most appeal to liberal sensibilities, such as the genocide in Darfur. That means the number one object of U.N. perfidy — the state of Israel — is conspicuous by its absence in the film. Though so much of what is wrong about the U.N. is illustrated by the widespread anti-Semitism given a hearing in its halls and the double standard by which the democratic State of Israel is subjected to most of the resolutions adopted by the institution, the Jewish state is mentioned only in passing throughout “U.N. Me.” Though this may disappoint some viewers, it’s not a mistake. While it eliminates many of the most egregious instances of U.N. misbehavior, the tactic also allows Horowitz to make his point about its failures without miring his narrative in the rhetorical battlefield of the Middle East conflict.
But even without a discussion of the U.N.’s unfair obsession with Israel, there is more than enough scandalous material to fill several hours, let alone the 90 minutes of “U.N. Me.”
In the Ivory Coast, Horowitz delves into the scandal of “peacekeepers gone wild” where the “blue helmets” are not only pleasure-seeking thieves who don’t protect the people of that war-torn nation but have themselves committed massacres.
The direct failure of the U.N. to do anything to stop the genocide in Rwanda though it had the forces on the spot and the intelligence to do so is a heartbreaking story, and here, Horowitz goes easy on the humor. But he makes up for that with his exploration of the U.N.’s failures to deal with genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan during which a Sudanese diplomat asserts that “climate change” is the reason so many were massacred by his government, prompting Horowitz to suggest that more Priuses is the answer to the problem.
The film also goes into great depth to describe the way ordinary corruption is part of business as usual at the U.N.. The “oil for food” scandal in which Saddam Hussein skimmed more than $10 billion from the world body in exchange for millions in bribes to U.N. officials is a central part of the story. At its core is the role of former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, demonstrating that this scheme was ordinary practice and not an exception.
And though the documentary doesn’t go into the bizarre way the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) has helped perpetuate the plight of the Palestinians (the U.N. has one agency for all other refugees and one devoted to the Palestinians), it is shown as employing terrorists in Gaza and allowing their ambulances to be used as getaway vehicles.
The film, which was first shown at film festivals in 2009 but only gained a general release on June 1 of this year, suffers in one respect from the delay. During the past three years, one of the U.N. agencies that Horowitz spoofs has changed for the better. Though the International Atomic Energy Agency was rightly seen as a body that was determined to “see no evil” when inspecting Iran under its previous leader, the Egyptian diplomat Mohamad El Baradei, his successor Yukio Amano has altered its course. Whereas in the past, the IAEA aided proliferation, these days, it is a thorn in the side of the Iranians and its release of incriminating evidence about their work on military applications of nuclear power have prodded the West to step up sanctions.
It may be that what Amano did with the IAEA shows the failure of the “new” U.N. Human Rights Council and other agencies need not have happened. With the right sort of leadership and an application of the principles of the original U.N. Charter, it is theoretically possible that all of the abuses and scandals Horowitz discusses in “U.N. Me” can be corrected. Yet given the deep-seated nature of the problems that are put on display here it could be that the reform of the IAEA is the exception that proves the rule. An institution where accountability is almost always absent, where Third World politics dictates that horrible crimes must be excused if not rationalized or sanitized may be beyond redemption. As journalist Claudia Rosett notes in the film, “avoiding the truth is in the DNA of this organization.”
In one of the concluding scenes, Horowitz escalates his reportorial hijinks. Not content with interviews with Iranians, Syrians and Sudanese who expose their contempt for human rights, the narrator jumps up on the stage of the U.N. hall in Geneva and attempts to address the delegates about their hypocrisy. While this can be dismissed as nothing more than a silly stunt, the fact that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Holocaust-denying president of Iran had opened the conference on human rights that Horowitz crashed makes it all too clear that the line between satire and truth has long since been erased at the U.N.
Horowitz and Groff have produced a documentary that may at times be a little too jocose for its serious subject matter, but is nevertheless always watchable and infused with genuine wit. It remains to be seen whether their praiseworthy effort to tell this important story will get the exposure it deserves, but anyone who takes the time to watch “U.N. Me” cannot help but walk away sharing the filmmaker’s frustration and disgust with the U.N.
“U.N. Me” is available in select theaters around the country as well as via on demand cable services and iTunes.