July 05, 2007

Review: Mine Your Own Business

What an amazing film.

This begins as an intensely personal story: Mine Your Own Business starts with a mini-autobiography on the part of former Financial Times reporter Phelim McAleer, who discusses why he originally went into journalism. Growing up Roman Catholic in Northern Ireland, he saw enough of man's inhumanity to man that he wanted to write, to serve as a witness, to speak for human rights. (He doesn't put it quite that way, of course, but that's how I interpreted his statements.)

While he was working for the FT in Romania, McAleer was approached by a beleaguered Canadian company that wanted to bring modern, environmentally responsible mining techniques to the Transylvanian town of Rosia Montanâ—which has been in the mining business for approximately 2000 years (yes, since Roman times). The company,Gabriel Resources, wanted him to do a promotional piece on their planned mine in Rosia Montanâ. McAleer had a better idea: Why don't you help me make a documentary? he asked. He had one proviso: The company would have zero editorial control. Zero.

Either they felt lucky, or they were very secure in their thinking that someone who looked at the actual environmental impact of the project—and spoke with the townspeople in Rosia Montanâ—would come to the conclusion that the mining project was a good idea, or at least the least-bad idea for saving the town. Perhaps, however, the company just likes writing checks to no particular end, which is unusual among big businesses. In any event, they agreed: No editorial control. And they forked over the cash.

They backed McAleer through some very unorthodox filmmaking methods: Not only does McAleer speak with a lot of the actual residents of Rosia Montanâ about the proposed mine, but he develops a bond with one of the locals, an unemployed young miner named George Lucian, who speaks some English (his linguistic skills gets better as the film progresses) and takes on an unexpectedly huge role in the documentary.

Lucian takes McAleer on a tour of the less picturesque parts of Rosia Montanâ, such as the rusty-looking hyper-polluted river that now runs on the outskirts of town, and the rather, um, geometrical piles of dirt that adorn the surrounding landscape as a result of old-fashioned mining techniques (in fact, it looks like strip mining). Eventually, the two begin researching other controversial mining projects that have also been in environmentalist extremists' cross-hairs.

Then McAleer talks George Lucian—who has never even travelled to Bucharest, much less boarded a plane—into visiting towns on other continents where mining projects are desired by the citizenry, but opposed by environmentalist activists.

They look at a project in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, and together get to know one of the "local" opponents, who lives quite far away from the town, and is in the process of building a seaside villa on the far coast of the island. The most hilarious part of the whole movie takes place on the grounds of his estate-in-progress, where he shows his visitors his $35,000 yacht, and then explains that the villagers in Fort Dauphin are rich in things other than trifles such as material possession and "nutrition" (I kid you not: he really said that—and with the camera rolling!). In any event, he assures his guests, if any of the locals in Madagascar ever came into money, they'd squander it on beer; they certainly won't use it to educate their children. (Ever-thorough, McAleer asks Ft. Daupin residents what they would do with any money they might make by working in the mine. With few exceptions, they express a desire to send their kids to school.)

During the hilarious-but-scary discussion with the high-roller watermelon, the camera pans to the horrified look on George's face as he listens to the rich guy who opposes development and claims that he doesn't think money is really that important. We have already been told that many of the villagers in Rosia Montanâ don't have indoor plumbing, and we've seen pictures of the outhouses its denizens must use in sub-zero weather. For the first-time viewer of Mine Your Own Business, poverty has lost any allure it might once have had—and for good.

I found myself wondering why the unemployed Transylvanian miner didn't go after the rich, self-satisfied environmentalist with a knife, but young George is better-bred than I am, and it shows.

Next, Phelim McAleer heads to London, to discuss the history of ecosystems with a few of the academics there. One points out that Kew Gardens wouldn't exist if the forest that preceeded it had been "saved" by the forbears of those who now want to save poor Africans and Eastern Europeans from the horrors of human progress; another asks who, exactly, we are to tell them that development will create long-range problems for them, and that we consider them incapable of solving such problems? After all, the industrialized world has managed to mitigate a lot of the side-effects of development, while enjoying its unarguable benefits. (Back to that indoor toilet issue. I feel that an outhouse would be inconvenient here, in Southern California—much less in an environment that plunges 20 degrees below zero every winter. And just several generations ago, I'd be at the end of the average human life expectancy.)

Finally, George and Phelim head off to Chile, where a mining project is being planned high in the Andes, on the border with Argentina. The locals desperately want this project, and the money it will bring into the community, but this one, also, is opposed by environmentalists and some NGOs (non-governmental organizations). The enviros and the NGOs are also allied with local agribusiness, which has grown accustomed to using the locals as sources of cheap labor who are willing to work under unsafe conditions (for example, wearing no protective gear when they spray with pesticides) because the big landowners are, right now, the only game in town. With a mine nearby, the landowners would have to improve working conditions—and possibly raise pay—to attract labor. It seems they prefer having serfs—and, really, who wouldn't?

The altitude in Chile kicks McAleer's ass; he ends up in a clinic breathing oxygen out of a mask. It is left to his young Romanian friend George—the guy who knows high-altitude mining—to visit the site of the proposed mine, and interview the developer about what this might do for the community, and what is being done to preserve the glaciers in the area, and relocate them to neighboring mountaintops (these are not glaciers like those that live in Alaska's water: the looked small, as if they were each the size of furniture, or a fraction of a "calf" of an Alaskan glacier).

Then we get to listen to the enviros again, and it's the same old story: Those who are financially comfortable would like the world's poor to remain that way, as if they were exhibits in a sort of global zoo. All humans are equal, sure. But some are more equal than others. And tiny glaciers, of course, are more equal than people. But you knew that too, right?

If there were a real hierarchy among politically independent filmmakers, I'd be afraid that Phelim McAleer would topple the mighty Even Coyne Maloney right off his throne. (Though it may get interesting this fall at the Liberty Film Festival's main extravaganza in West Hollywood, with Indoctrinate U having to compete with Mine Your Own Business. I'm just glad I'm not on the voting panel; it would be hard to choose between those two.)

* * * * Here Beginneth the Serious Snark * * * *
[UPDATE 2: I'm not editing, exactly, but the participants in my Writers' Group suggested to me rather gently that at this point I begin to, um, preach to the choir. Ethics forbid that I cut the offending section this late in the day, but my lefty friends might want to wander off right around now. Didn't you leave something boiling on the stove? Or oughtn't you to pluck your eyebrows? You know, it's earthquake weather; go find that flashlight!]

Oh, and by the way—there's been some opposition to MYOB by environmental groups and NGOs. What a sir-prize! But I didn't see a rebuttal to the allegations in MYOB; just mushy indignation. The images of environmental damage from the existing mining operation in Rosia Montanâ (put in place under the environmentally aware Soviets) were awfully hard for me to ignore—as were the pictures from a neighboring town, where mining has been abandoned entirely, and the villagers who remain are reduced to picking through the rubble, looking for scrap metal they can sell in order to survive.

Poverty is not picturesque. It is time for us to get out of the way, and let developing countries . . . you know: develop.

UPDATE 1: And here's a bonus! A discussion of the film by environmental extremists who clearly haven't seen it, and think the filmmaker is "British," and the Romanian woman quoted therein must be "Russian."

Can we at least pool our resources and get some of these far-left greenies a few atlases? Just a thought.

Posted by Attila Girl at July 5, 2007 03:41 AM | TrackBack

Roşia Montană for you purists(virgula and breve added) Not to be diacritical, of course.

Gabriel should have the EU pay them for NOT mining, and the townspeople as well. Maybe a lawsuit against the Romans in the World Court as well. Thats where and when it all started...except for those stone-age fellows. Gabriel has been involved, what, 5-12 years?

Sure, keep the people poor and happy whether they like it or not. Then find a five-star hotel for the night.

Posted by: Darrell at July 5, 2007 08:59 PM


I was going to look up the html for the correct marks. I'll try a cut-and-paste, and if it doesn't work I'll have to hit you up for the code.


Posted by: Attila Girl at July 5, 2007 10:21 PM

try here. Lots of useful international symbols.

Posted by: caltechgirl at July 5, 2007 11:08 PM

And . . . you're so diacritical. Have you considered therapy?

Posted by: Attila Girl at July 5, 2007 11:09 PM

You've inspired me to find what box in the garage I put that DVD into and start passing it around. One of the parts I do recall is when they show how much pollution the State-run mine caused mostly due to the fact they are accountable to no one.

Posted by: the Pirate at July 6, 2007 06:03 AM

"Have you considered therapy?"

No. I would have to realize that I am insane first.

My mind just got stuck in Montana, USA when I was reading. Sorry to make you goof up the town's spelling with that faulty code in the second paragraph of UpdateII.

Posted by: Darrell at July 6, 2007 07:51 AM

Please go back to the way you had it. Does it work if you copy and paste my version?

Posted by: Darrell at July 6, 2007 07:13 PM

Nope. Copying-and-pasting your version gave us the question marks. And now I've got nothing on that "s," and the wrong mark on the "a." I swear--I'm tempted to put a tilde over the n, just so the pronunciation will be clear, but I think I just need to crack open my html book.

Posted by: Attila Girl at July 7, 2007 07:31 AM

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