“There’s only two things that count in business my friend,” declares arms dealer Riccardo Privitera, “money and sex… The rest is absolute garbage.” So Shadow World introduces the viewer to the whispering, elite world of the international arms trade. Over an hour and a half of interviews and archive footage, the documentary draws together a sordid tale of corruption, violence and greed that sprawls across decades and continents.
Opening with Britain’s ignominious trading partnership with Saudi Arabia, we see weapons and money hustled between the top echelons of government and Saudi royalty by a cast of spivs, crooks, idiots and bastards (Mark Thatcher making a brief cameo as all four). The story then hurtles over to America, detailing the billions in cash thrown into the increasing void that is the War on Terror – a war against an enemy so nebulous it has no discernable shape, and more importantly, no discernable finish. The behemoth military manufacturers BAE and Lockheed Martin leer over proceedings like twin ogres. Lockheed’s bullyboy brand of strong armed wealth accumulation is described as making “the mafia look like a bunch of schoolboys” – footage of court appearances from Lockheed’s top brass – keeping schtum as any mobster under omerta - appears to bear this out.
Based on Andrew Feinstein's book The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, the documentary covers the full, hideous spectrum of half a century of arms manufacturing, from the US funding contras in Nicaragua by gun running to Iran, to George Bush yee-haaing through Iraq. In one of the grimmest interviews, Israeli ecominst Shir Hever points out that Israel bombs Gaza every couple of years – and immediately after there is an Israeli arms fare. Essentially the levelling of Gaza has become a part of the tradeshow. As with most of Shadow World’s relentless revelations, it’s an ugly, inglorious truth.
Director Johan Grimonprez is clearly influenced by Adam Curtis, and Shadow World works well as a companion piece to Curtis’s examinations of UK/Middle Eastern relations. There are moments that are touched on in both Bitter Lake and, perhaps more so, in Curtis’s late 90s film The Mayfair Set: Who Pays Wins, which explicitly dealt with the exploits of the UK’s chief weapons pimp David Stirling. The two directors also share a love of dream-state aesthetics, Grimonprez’s layering of black and white war footage with ambient drones is particularly Curtis-ian in its sense of dislocation, a useful visual reminder of the huge disconnects we live with, where we’re sold an ideal of society built on high morals and democratic accountability, all whilst a dirty war machine openly, gleefully shits on both.
Unlike Curtis, however, Grimonprez is explicit in his conclusions – Shadow World is a film with clearly delineated villains, and there is less sense of the blind incompetence and chaotic decision-making that Curtis often suggests power global politics, and this maybe aligns it a little more with the conspiratorial side of things, where nuance tends to be abandoned for statements of good and evil. This is amplified by the sheer scope of the film – in covering so many different situations, detail is necessarily lost.
Regardless, the end result remains powerful. The final scene returns to the moment German and Allied soldiers rose out of the WWI trenches and held a temporary truce on Christmas day 1914 – a truce that a general at the time deplored, writing that if troops were allowed “friendly intercourse with the enemy” they would “slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a ‘live and let live’ theory of life.” It’s a closing that speaks of a humanity that eschews war and the machine that feeds off it – an optimistic, emotional end to an otherwise depressing watch.
Shadow World has a UK premiere on Sept 17th at The Bertha DocHouse Screen, Curzon Bloomsbury. Screenings then follow all week after. More info here.