'Beyond The Call'

On Friday, September 28 at the Varsity Theatre, at 6:15 p.m. and 8:15 p.m., the Ashland Independent Film Festival and Coming Attractions will present two special showings of "Beyond The Call," the film Ashland audiences voted their favorite at last April's festival.

Billed as an "Indiana Jones meets Mother Teresa" adventure, "Beyond The Call" follows three middle-aged men as they deliver humanitarian aid to people living in abject poverty around the world, many in remote locations so dangerous that most Non Governmental Agencies (NGOs) have retreated out of concern for the safety of their personnel.

Yet these three &

retired mortgage banker, Ed Artis; cardiologist, Jim Laws; and entrepreneur Walt Ratterman &

personally deliver medicines, supplies, and cash directly into the hands of the locals. Think of it as a form of humanitarian triage. They are clearly dedicated to their mission and willing to do whatever it takes to bring their special brand of assistance to those in great need. They have no political or religious agenda, and they ask nothing in return except safe passage. It is high risk, high gain work and they have incurred huge debt along the way.

In one scene, they are sitting in a high mountain locale in Afghanistan, not long after Sept. 11, asking elders what they need most. Winter is coming and they're told it's tents that are essential if the village is to survive the cold weather. Tents it is. At a remote school, where the teachers have not been paid for months, Artis asks the school principal how much it would cost to pay all of the teachers' salaries for a year. When he is told, he peels off the bills and hands them over. He does the same when bargaining for 60 tons of food to take to war refugees, counting out thousands of dollars in payment while sitting with Laws and Ratterman among strangers. It's the stuff of high adventure, a bit reckless and admirable considering the objective.

What makes Adrian Belic's film provocative and hopefully the subject of much discussion is it's subtext, for it implicitly examines the Western concept of what constitutes humanitarian aid, and how it should be delivered. The idea of landing in a camp of people facing famine and disease because of a natural calamity (earthquake or tsunami), and handing out sacks of grain and rice, can mean the difference between life and death. Call that relief aid.

But then there's the aid to the poor and displaced who are victims of a grinding, desperate poverty that is the result of nations mired in corruption and internecine warfare, where billions are spent on weaponry and a fraction on the people.

The dilemma for NGOs, large or small, is how to address the larger, systemic issues. Inherent in any depiction of bringing aid to those trapped in a cycle of poverty is the axiom: if you want to feed a man for a day, bring him a sack of grain. If you want to feed him forever, bring him a plow and a sack of seed and teach him to plant. NGOs (secular and religious) are viewed by many as representing a self-perpetuating industry that does not (likely cannot) address underlying causes. Instead they can create a debilitating dependency.

Of course, aid is essential if it is to function as a bridge, a stop gap, while issues in a country are sorted out. Darfur is a good example. But in so many parts of the third world, poverty and deprivation, illness and crushing disease are perpetuated by inequities that will never be solved by the delivery of aid. That's the Gordian knot faced by all aid organizations.

These three men, characterized as archetypes of Indiana Jones, are functioning as a small, highly effective NGO. What they are doing begs a much larger question. Are their dollars, while well intended, truly well-spent? Clearly, they can make a difference. But there is also an aspect to any effort of this ilk that has the feel of the Bwana westerner, the colonialist, who arrives from an affluence that most third world people cannot comprehend and hands out aid. Of course, the people are grateful. But the difference is that these men will return to their homes in the richest country in the world while those left behind have no choice but to carry on. Mother Teresa stayed. And even she, with her devotion and unrelenting care, did little to change the underlying causes of caste and class and poverty.

There are moments in the film when Artis is handing over stacks of cash, or lifting food stuff off the back of a truck, the gratitude evident in the faces of the locals, when you can almost feel his personal rush of purpose and good feeling. Of course, that is part of arriving and giving people much needed assistance. The three men, Artis, Laws and Ratterman, have found a purpose in life, a sense of mission, requiring dedication, sacrifice and something larger than themselves. But there is little discussion by the men about the larger context and what is going on around them. Which is unfortunate. Not that they could effect long-lasting change, nor should they expect to, but worldwide poverty is not occurring in a vacuum. And if it is to ever be ameliorated, it will require more than a truck loaded with grain, even if it is arriving in the nick of time. That's a discussion worth having. And having again.

If fine documentaries springboards, provoking audiences to reflect and probe and discuss, then "Beyond The Call" succeeds and is definitely a must see. It has already been shown and honored at the Telluride, Santa Fe and Palm Springs Film Festivals as well as many others across the country.

Proceeds from the box office for "Beyond The Call" will benefit the Ashland Independent Film Festival's preparation for the 2008 festival, scheduled for early April of 2008. Tickets are available now for "Beyond The Call" at the Varsity box office with a 25 percent discount Film Festival members. For more information, or to see a film trailer, visit ashlandfilm.org. The film will continue to show at the Varsity through October 4.

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