Since 1993’s Battle of Mogadishu (the disastrous U.S. Army operation fictionalized in the 2001 film Black Hawk Down), the United States has avoided a heavy military presence in Somalia. Instead, three successive administrations have preferred to use the CIA and the military’s Special Operations Command to fund and train Somali warlords, neighboring belligerents like Kenya, and private militias to fight Islamic radicalism and to destabilize any provisional government that might threaten Western mineral interests. The United States has been one of the main sources of instability in what Roger Carstens, the star and producer of a new documentary called The Project, calls “the most fucked-up country on Earth.” It is perhaps the vilest film of the year.

Carstens, a retired Army Special Forces lieutenant colonel, is the protagonist of The Project, which sympathetically follows the incompetent antics of a highly illegal paramilitary organization formed by Blackwater’s Erik Prince in the fight against pirates off the coast of Somalia.

“In this camp, I am the sultan, and you will listen to me!” a white South African yells to a group of impoverished Somalis. This “sultan” is a former military commander—one who fought and killed to protect apartheid—working for Executive Outcomes, a company funded by the United Arab Emirates and advised by Prince, who continues to establish private mercenary armies across the globe while living in virtual exile from the U.S. The would-be soldiers under the "sultan" are underfed Somalis, interested mainly in the food and shelter offered by the private army, and likely not motivated by any nationalist impulse that their white commanders might try to graft onto a clan-based society. Still, embarrassingly, the commanders try throughout the film to condition the men into a fighting force that will kill fellow Somalis in service of protecting international trade routes.

The Project was funded by the Moving Picture Institute, which looks to promote economic liberalism through the media, and it aspires to be the Waiting for "Superman" for the para-military set. It employs graphics that emulate a videogame; as the Somalis are directed to die and kill, rock music kicks in. This is more or less where the film reveals exactly what it is: an advertisement for private armies, and a bad one at that.

Carstens narrates the proceedings, informing the viewer that he had to leave the military to “move out on my own to answer some questions that are burning in me.” Namely, would private mercenary armies, with no international oversight, be the best way to provide security during the never-ending War on Terror? For Carstens, the answer is yes.

Puntland, an autonomous region in northeastern Somalia, is a haven for Somali pirates, which the film insinuates have ties to terrorist organizations like al Shabab and Al Qaeda (as Jeremy Scahill, the author of Dirty Wars, has shown, they don’t). The government of Puntland agreed to give the paramilitary organization some legitimacy (but no money—that came from the Emiratis) by sponsoring it and bestowing the title of Puntland Maritime Police Force. The South African “mentors” whip the Somalis into shape by physically abusing them. The film, unsurprisingly, omits an incident where a trainee died after he was “hogtied with his arms and feet bound behind his back and beaten,” as the New York Times reported last October.

The Project is uninterested in examining the structural causes for Somalia's present circumstances. It ignores the endless flow of weapons from the United States, and the role of the CIA in promoting rival warlords. Instead, we're given the impression, via a horrific string of images, that black people (black Muslims) don’t know how to behave themselves.

The film builds towards a climax when the graduates of the six-week training academy are given their first assignment: hunting down and killing a notorious pirate who is holding an Indian cargo ship ransom. The police force fruitlessly scours the coastline looking for its target (the white men with the big guns in a helicopter, the black men with shitty guns on the ground), only to find town after town abandoned. The South African mercenaries believe they have an informant in their midst, and as accusations fly and pressure mounts in the hot African sun, the Somalis turn on their “mentors” and kill one of the South Africans.

Their assignment considered a failure, the authorities in turn execute the Somalis they consider responsible for the death of the South African, and eventually the whole project falls apart amid mounting political and media pressure. The film also leaves the out the part where the Emirati company left behind 500 half-trained soldiers without pay and with an entire armory of weapons at their disposal. But that’s beside the point.

The Project would like to show the heroism of these war-profiteers. It mercifully ends with a lone South African leading a small group of Somalis (ones who volunteered to stay in the illegal, unpaid army) shooting at the hijacked ship, which had run out of gas and run aground. With no other options, the pirates surrender and escape, but not before a Somali soldier is killed in a disastrous attempt to board the ship. The film celebrates this weak moment as a huge triumph. Given a hopeless enemy, killers-for-hire can succeed.

The Project is screening as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.

[Photo courtesy of Jason Florio ©2011]

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