September 23, 2015 | By Chuck Carlson
Mike Ramsdell asked the 75 or so students assembled inside Norris Center's Towsley Hall how many knew anything about the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and what had been tearing the African country apart for nearly 20 years.
One hand went up.
"That's OK," Ramsdell said. "I didn't either."
He does now.
In fact, the Flint-area native and documentary filmmaker has made it something of his life's work to chronicle and inform viewers about what is occurring in the beleaguered country, as an odd combination of civic responsibility, economics, politics and simple common sense all collide.
"Technically this is the worst human atrocity on the planet Earth since World War II," Ramsdell told the students in a Tuesday morning talk that was coordinated by Albion College political science professor Carrie Booth Walling.
Ramsdell's pointed give-and-take talk with students came ahead of a free evening screening of his latest film, When Elephants Fight, at the Bohm Theatre in downtown Albion.
"I've seen the film and I know Mike, and he's an incredibly powerful speaker," Walling said.
The 90-minute documentary, which is being shown at film festivals now, is a stark look at how the DRC's wealth of minerals—from copper and diamonds to oil and tin and cobalt, among others—has made it an area of interest for the industrial powers of the world that need those minerals to power their economies.
Add to that, Ramsdell said, a long-standing, disastrous civil war and decades of dictatorial rule, fomented by the United States, and the DRC (known as Zaire until 1997) has devolved into a place bordering on chaos.
More than 4 million people have died in the vicious tribal civil war that spilled into the DRC from neighboring Rwanda, he said. The film shows that the international community is aware of the problems but is all but impotent to do anything about it.
It has been the battles between rival tribes, corrupt politicians and pressure from multinational companies from various world powers that has put the DRC in the middle and led the film's narrator to say that, "Since 1997, peace has never returned to Congo."
It also led Ramsdell to the film's title, which comes from an old African proverb, "When elephants fight, it's the grass that suffers."
In his talk Tuesday, Ramsdell, who spent four years on the project, concedes that no one has the answers to solve the issues facing the country, but that doesn't mean the issue shouldn't be discussed and debated.
"It's about crisis fatigue," he said. "There's just so much going on in the world that people just tune it out. That's the trick—I have to make an audience care. How do we get business ethics to be part of the conversation? How do you get that message out there?"
The lecture brought in students from various disciplines on campus, from political science and geology to anthropology, economics, public policy and more.
And for Walling, that was necessary, because the problem weaves into many different disciplines.
"He tells a hard truth but he has an empowering message," she said. "We want them to understand this is going on. I wanted my students to hear what he had to say."
His hope is that consumers, when they understand what the DRC is dealing with, will fuel a change in the attitude worldwide, much in the same way they did in boycotting South African goods in protest of apartheid.
"We have people making decisions who aren't bad people," Ramsdell said. "And that's what my films have driven me to understand. It's about getting information in front of people and making them understand."
Along with Political Science, the lecture and film were sponsored by the departments of Anthropology and Sociology, Art and Art History, Communication Studies, Geological Sciences, International Studies and Philosophy; the Gerstacker Institute, the Ford Institute, and the Center for Sustainability and the Environment; the Law, Justice and Society concentration; the Holocaust Studies Service Learning Project; and the Office of the President.
For more information about Mike Ramsdell and his films, visit the documentary's website, whenelephantsfight.com.