Crosshairs pan across the screen and center themselves upon a group of three men glowing in the infrared camera. Offscreen, Riccardo Privitera, an international arms dealer, speaks about the control that Lockheed Martin (an aerospace and defense firm) exerts on U.S. foreign policy. The crosshairs’ diameter tightens as the screen shudders. Gunfire sounds; the three men amble unconcernedly toward a ramshackle desert outpost. Privitera takes a drag from his cigarette and declares that bombs are a necessity, like food. Plumes of dust appear as the three men fall, lifeless, to the ground.
Belgian filmmaker Johan Grimonprez’s 2017 film, blue orchids, contains several sequences like this one, and features interviews Grimonprez conducted with both Privitera and Chris Hedges, a former war correspondent for The New York Times. On one side is Hedges, a former journalist who openly carries the psychological pain of nearly two decades of battlefield reporting. Grimonprez invites the audience to contrast him with Privitera, a global arms dealer. Privitera profits from the lies about war Hedges seeks to abolish and thrives in the sort of moral gray spaces Hedges loathes. (The film takes its name, blue orchids, from one of Privitera’s other businesses, a brothel.) Paradoxically, Privitera and Hedges both end up blaming corporate greed as the root cause of war.
Grimonprez arranges the cuts of interviews with Privitera and Hedges so they weave in and out of found surveillance footage and news broadcasts chronicling the role corporations play in igniting and ensuring global conflict.
A dizzying montage features CCTV footage of the 2010 assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, which is cut by a press conference where former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was questioned for claims that he was paid by private interests to ignore illegal weapons trafficking.
All the while, Hedges describes how the brutality on the fringes of any empire — the U.S. included — always creeps back to the heartland, citing the decommissioned military drones deployed in Flint, Mich., earlier this year. Both Privitera and Hedges recount the daily mental trauma they cope with as a result of PTSD.
“The only people who understand war are the people who have been to war,” Hedges says. “It takes very, very little to turn a person into a beast.” For Hedges and Grimonprez, the only victors in war are the corporate interests that incite it.
For all the narrative instability introduced by the wending cuts of endless war, brutality and disingenuous politics, Grimonprez’s film ultimately espouses a message of hope. The film features Muntazer al-Zaidi, the Iraqi reporter who threw his shoes at then-President George W. Bush as a symbol of resistance.
“It was just a shoe, but it had a mouth,” al-Zaidi says. “So the world would wake up to the gravity of the perpetrated crimes.”
Grimonprez wants his viewer to wake up to the horror of the endless war arranged by the military-industrial complex — to realize that an Iraqi suicide bomber is no different than a U.S. IED, as Hedges says. It isn’t too late, Grimonprez suggests, but we need to see through the glorious war mythology if anything is going to change.
blue orchids opened in the Gund Gallery in May and runs through Oct. 8.