- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 23, 2003

Are international relief workers fronting for the CIA? You’d almost think so to watch “Beyond Borders,” a romantic

thriller starring Angelina Jolie and Clive Owen as international relief workers facing mortal danger and moral Catch-22s.

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Steven Hansch, a former humanitarian worker who got paid to consult on the movie — but now can’t vouch for the finished product — says the movie, out today in area theaters, is a hash of misrepresentations and errors large and small.

Based on his experience in Asia, Africa and Central America, Mr. Hansch, a senior researcher and adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University, believes “Borders” is “just silly.”

He says: “‘Beyond Borders’ is not just inaccurate in its details, but … fundamental aspects of the story are insults to what aid workers stand for.”

Mr. Hansch worked first with director Oliver Stone, who, he says, was attached to the project before ditching it out of frustration with the screenplay’s imprecision and blunders. Martin Campbell (“The Mask of Zorro,” “GoldenEye”), who took over for Mr. Stone, says it was a budget shortfall that drove the “Platoon” director off the set.

Even though he initially thought of the movie purely as a love story, Mr. Campbell says he “got more and more involved in the backdrop of the story,” relying heavily on researchers and experts who had worked in the field.

Mr. Hansch was one of those researchers, and he says the movie is bogus. His main gripe is the portrayal of Mr. Owen’s character Nick Callahan, a mercurial maverick surgeon working for an unnamed nongovernmental organization (NGO) who will do anything it takes to rescue famine victims — including smuggle weapons for shady arms merchants and spies.

The Callahan character is what Sandra Mitchell, vice president for government relations and advocacy for the International Rescue Committee, calls a “humanitarian cowboy.”

At a panel discussion before a screening of the movie at Visions Cinema, Miss Mitchell insisted “the cowboy types of activities have disappeared.”

“We don’t run guns. There are clear principles and guidelines. We’re very determined about our standards,” she says.

“In some instances we have to work with the military and with armed elements,” says Guenet Guebre-Christos, a regional representative for the United Nations high commissioner for refugees. But, she adds, “We have ground rules; we have to follow them.”

“There’s no evidence that any legitimate humanitarian relief agency has ever taken funds from the CIA,” Mr. Hansch says. “That’s not to say it hasn’t happened; but 99.9 percent of NGOs are clean in this regard.”

Roberta Cohen, co-director of the Project on Internal Displacement sponsored by the Brookings Institution and the School of Advanced International Studies, chalks up the movie’s inaccuracies to “dramatic license.” At the panel discussion, she urged the audience to forgive the cloak-and-dagger Hollywood excess and focus on the “real and important issues this movie raises” — namely, regarding the plight of nearly 20 million refugees, exiles and asylum seekers across the globe, in places like Afghanistan, Sudan, Bosnia and Colombia.

“Beyond Borders” tracks Callahan and his team over a 15-year period, from famine-stricken Ethiopia to Cambodia to Chechnya.

It was in Chechnya, the war-torn region in the Caucasus mountains that Russia says is a terrorist haven, that “Borders” found its original inspiration — Fred Cuny, an aid worker killed there in 1995.

He was the basis, Mr. Hansch says, for the Callahan character. While he was fiercely independent, Mr. Hansch says Mr. Cuny never behaved the way Callahan does in “Borders.”

“Fred was seen as a renegade but in a positive and constructive way,” Mr. Hansch says.

He would never have paraded an emaciated Ethiopian boy at a London black-tie dinner in order to shame rich donors, as Callahan does in the movie. Any aid worker who pulled such a stunt, he says, “would’ve been fired in a second.”

And it’s never made clear just who Callahan works for in “Borders.” His organization is a “loose band” roving the globe, whereas in reality NGOs such as the International Red Cross are bureaucratically organized with a steady cash flow from the United States and other developed countries.

“It’s almost like ‘Road Warrior,’” Mr. Hansch says of the rendering of NGOs in the movie.

Mr. Campbell says the “Borders” script was sent to the U.N. for approval; portions were altered based on the organization’s input. Paramount Pictures, moreover, screened the film for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and about 40 other officials.

“He seemed enthusiastic about it and certainly gave us the thumbs-up,” Mr. Campbell says.

Claiming the U.N. was essentially “bought off,” Mr. Hansch said, “They have a stake in the movie,” including money raised at a recent New York premiere and Miss Jolie’s own largesse.

Indeed, as quoted this week on the Internet Movie Database Web site, Miss Jolie says, “I’ve taken on the responsibility of donating at least a third of what I earn to humanitarian aid.”

Anyway, the movie “doesn’t make the U.N. look bad; it makes NGOs look bad,” Mr. Hansch says.

If “Beyond Borders” gets anything right, it’s the tenacity of international aid workers. It captures accurately their do-or-die attitude, even if it fabricates their methods.

Or does it? Could their be a nugget of truth in its violent adventurism? Miss Guebre-Christos puts it bluntly: “If it saves refugees, we will work with the devil.”

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