“The American media can only handle one African conflict per decade.” Those are the words of Omekongo Dibinga, speaking on a panel after a screening of When Elephants Fight, a new documentary from director Mike Ramsdell, narrated by Robin Wright, about the two-decade-old war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Dibinga, a Congolese-American activist and academic, was there to help promote the film and raise awareness about the conflict in general, and his characterization of the US press is only slightly hyperbolic. With some notable exceptions, US media have largely overlooked a conflict that has left 5 million dead, in what many analysts say is the deadliest war since World War II. Elephants is an attempt to educate Western audiences—primarily Americans—about the role their governments and consumer habits play in perpetuating the violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
At the heart of the story, as Elephants lays it out, is a familiar tale of a phenomenon known as the resource curse: A land-rich country, rather than prospering from its own abundance, suffers from outside exploitation, internal corruption, and deprivation for its citizens. In the case of the DRC, minerals, used to power iPhones and other technology, are the prized resource.
In a fairer world, the DRC would be one of the richest countries in the world. In 2011, the United Nations estimated the DRC’s “untapped mineral reserves…to be worth $24 trillion.” Copper, coltan, tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold are all abundant there, and US tech and mining companies have taken advantage of the war to get access to the minerals for next to nothing. There have been efforts to rein in the use of “conflict minerals” in tech production, primarily through the 2010 Dodd-Frank legislation. A lawsuit successfully kneecapped one of the bill’s key provisions, though, which would have required companies to label the minerals they used if they came from conflict areas in the DRC.
But not everybody buys into that central conceit of Elephants, or of the Dodd-Frank provisions. In Foreign Policy, Lauren Wolfe argues that the ban on using “conflict minerals” is having the unintended consequence of harming Congolese miners and driving their already small profit margin even lower. And, to its detriment, the film doesn’t adequately grapple with this counter-narrative.
Visually, the Elephants is at its most gripping when showing GoPro footage of workers crawling deep into mines that become increasingly claustrophobic. In one scene, a miner falls over in the cramped space and then begins chuckling, an unsettling reminder that even the most dangerous work can become routine. In another fantastic segment, a middleman wears a hidden camera to show how he smuggles minerals from the Congo across the border to Rwanda. Distributors then tag the minerals as having originated in Rwanda. It’s a sign of how the chaos and lack of regulation in the region make it difficult to track what minerals are coming from where, and whether the profits are funding violent groups.