Mission Congo: Toronto Review
Lara Zizic and David Turner report on televangelist Pat Robertson using money, solicited for humanitarian aid, to finance his own mining operation.
TORONTO – In 1994, televangelist Pat Robertson took a break from railing against homosexuals and the Antichrist to make a series of heartfelt pleas to his vast 700 Club viewing audience. As more than a million people fled from Rwandan genocide to take refuge in Goma, Zaire, he urged supporters to send money that his "Operation Blessing" would use to fund a massive medical relief effort.
As Lara Zizic and David Turner argue very convincingly in Mission Congo, very little of the millions Robertson raised went to doctors and medicine. Instead, Operation Blessing's cargo planes carried equipment for a diamond-mining operation on the other side of Zaire. The blood-boiling film might have little chance of ending Robertson's long career of dubious do-gooderism, faith healing and the like. But it is an excellent addition to the conversation about tax-exempt institutions, a debate that remains timely long after Robertson's dream of riding his Bible-thumping fame into the White House died.
Though it benefits from well chosen interviews with observers (mainly The Virginian-Pilot's Bill Sizemore, who broke this story years ago) and NGO staffers, the film's most damning material comes from Robertson's own employees: We meet a pilot who was so ashamed of the cargo he carried that he peeled the words "Operation Blessing" off the side of his plane; we hear from mining consultants who worked for African Development Company, a Bermuda-based firm owned by Robertson. ADC and Robertson are said to have been very friendly with some pretty un-Christian politicians: Liberian president Charles Taylor, for example, who gave the firm diamond-mining concessions some years before being convicted of a slew of war crimes in The Hague.
As they're making this case, the filmmakers cut back to more clips from The 700 Club, comparing the good deeds Robertson's reporting with accounts from Medecins Sans Frontieres workers who were on the ground at the time. According to them, at least some of the video footage Robertson claimed showed teams of Operation Blessing physicians tending patients was actually of MSF.
Making this whole mess relevant today is the film's discussion of the nature of Robertson's organization, which relies on religious claims to avoid taxes and dodge fraud investigations. (Though an official inquiry following Sizemore's reporting found fraud, Virginia's Robertson-friendly governor and attorney general declined to act on it.) We're told that a whopping eight percent of the U.S. economy falls under the tax-exempt heading.
Though Robertson has reportedly threatened legal action against Zizic and Turner for Mission Congo, he declined to go before their cameras to offer his side of this sordid tale.
Production Company: C-Colony Productions
Directors-Screenwriters-Directors of photography: Lara Zizic, David Turner
Producers: Erin Heidenreich, David Turner, Lara Zizic
Music: Murray Gold
Editors: Michael Saia, Troy Mercury
Sales: Cinetic Media
No rating, 68 minutes