by Jocelyn Stayner
Exposure cultivates understanding. That is the guiding force behind Beyond the Border, a five-film series produced by the Kennedy Center in partnership with Combat Films and Research (CF&R). The series seeks to immerse viewers in cultures and allow them to experience— via documentary—people, events, ideas, and places far beyond their own surroundings.
“One of our responsibilities at the center is to support, research, and create outreach products—ways we can reach out to the community and inform them about international affairs,” explained Jeff Ringer, Kennedy Center director. “We’ve been doing a nice job with lectures and conferences, but those will only go so far; we wanted to try to push it a little further. That’s how this series evolved.”
A friendship with CF&R founder and Beyond the Border director, Dodge Billingsley, was a natural match to bring the series into production. A frequent lecturer at the center, Billingsley received his bachelor’s degree in peace studies from Columbia University and his master’s degree in war studies from London’s Kings College. A defense analyst by training, he is well acquainted with world travel, starting his film-making career as a result of his own interest in recording history as a primary witness. “I thought for sure I’d be a defense analyst, either in or out of the government,” admitted Billingsley. “And then I went to work for a small verification agency in London, just for the summer. The biggest problem was that I wanted to be out on the ground.”
Following his short stint in the typical analysts’ desk position, Billingsley started traveling to the world’s action areas. “I’ve always liked being places, and I don’t think it’s an adrenaline issue,” he said. “It’s more of an investigative issue. I want to know what went down.”
In 1993, on a research trip to the Republic of Georgia, Billingsley found his new calling—film. “I went to the Republic of Georgia, where there were wars in progress in Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” he reported. “I had a fascination with making documentaries, although I had never made one and had never taken a film class, so I didn’t really know what to do. I bought a little high-8 handy-cam and started to shoot images. Then I also realized it was a great way to document what goes on in conflict zones.”
Beyond the Border, which debuted on air in September and October, explored the ethics of war, the worldwide practice of armament wholesales, Chinese art and politics, Ukrainian expressions of freedom through music, and oil production enhanced by the conflicts surrounding the Caspian Sea. Each film in the series was created with a similar purpose: to broaden the understanding and appreciation for the issues and cultures exposed. The reader is invited to join us beyond the border.
Complexities of War
Personal battle footage—including the War in Iraq—and the complex business of war is the focus of “Fog & Friction.” “What we tried to do is use the same old story with a little different angle,” reported Billingsley. “We have 140 hours of Iraq footage. We could have done a number of Iraq stories. But what we haven’t seen out there is the discussion that war’s complicated, why it’s complicated, and what can we do in spite of it.”
“Fog & Friction” utilizes Carl Phillip Gottlieb von Clausewitz’ theories. Clausewitz was a German military strategist who served under both Napoleon’s empire and Prussia. People shortened his theories by saying, ‘what can go wrong, will go wrong’ in the fog of battle said Billingsley. Whereas in normal life, small incidents have insignificant consequences, war makes every moment count. “In war, when something goes wrong, ten guys die in a vehicle next to you. It’s like rolling over a land mind: it’s an accident, but people are always talking about justification for this or that in war,” he explained. “We try to make a point in the film that you can train, but that’s really the best you can do. War is still war, and it’s messy. People will die, civilians will die. We’ve been sold a bill of sale that it’s quick and clean, and it’s just not.
Buying Weapons Wholesale
The camera takes you behind the scenes as a witness to wholesale arms sales in “Arms Bazaar,” where individuals and countries can make modern warfare a reality. Americans are often accused of focusing all their energies in their own backyard. This documentary seeks to expose Americans to the practice of international armament sales. “This is interesting, because it’s a topic people aren’t aware of, and it’s a chance to introduce them to this strange venue,” said Ringer. “It’s very common all over the world, but we just don’t talk about it very much.”
Billingsley said that knowledge of arms bazaars is not well known outside the defense industry but they are accessible to the general population. This film will help inform more people about the world’s arms markets. “I’ve read a lot of articles about the arms markets,” said Billingsley. “However, I’ve never seen anything that takes you to an arms bazaar in the Middle East and lets you watch Libyan guys try to buy tanks from the Ukrainians—to me that’s interesting.”
This film also takes an unconventional look at the topic consisting of in-the-moment interviews with the actual sellers and buyers. “We interviewed people who were there,” said Billingsley. “No experts, just people who were trying to sell their products.
“We could have written a story about conventional arms trade and gotten all the classic footage from the national archives and interviewed the defense officials and how they do deals, but that’s so obvious,” Billingsley conceded. “Instead, we went to Abu Dhabi’s IDEX arms fair, which takes place in the Middle East. We shot random pieces, and we built visual modules with multiple shot sequences—segments that were visually interesting, and then we put the words on to tell the story. This was completely experimental, because we basically cut it first and then wrote to the images.”
Being at the arms market is quite the scene, according to Billingsley. Sellers from nations at war often set up their goods next to each other. “The arms market is bizarre because many of these states could be enemies. And it’s interesting that there is an Indian pavilion with Indians selling weapons and a Pakistani pavilion with Pakistanis selling weapons. Indians and Pakistanis hate each other. There’ll probably always be a war between their nations and many analyst friends of mine feel like if there’s going to be a nuclear exchange in the world, it’ll be between India and Pakistan,” explained Billingsley. “They hate each other, and they’ve been threatening to nuke each other for decades. But here they are at the arms bazaar saying, ‘Hey, how are you, my friend?’ They’re there, and they may not sell to each other, but they’re both out there selling.”
Goods on display at the bazaar range from the American-made patriot missile system—available for sale only to Israelis—to the “1960s and 1970s Soviet Union junk,” who were, according to Billingsley, “retrofitting everything and dumping it on the market.” He continued, “It’s nutty. You have a couple of Israeli citizens in yarmulkes shopping at an Arab trade show. The show’s subtleness is fascinating. Viewers can make up their own minds.”
A Cultural Heritage
Artist Jin Zhilin’s collision with China’s Cultural Revolution forms a story gathered unexpectedly for “From the Masses to the Masses.” Eric Hyer, an associate professor of political science and Chinese specialist at BYU, explained, “In 2000, Dodge and I started working together on another documentary about Helen Foster Snow in China. While we were in the countryside filming, we were always looking at art. I already had an interest in Chinese Socialist revolutionary art and Dodge had an interest in Russian Socialist revolutionary art.” One day while perusing an art display, the two came across an artist willing to show his art from the Cultural Revolution (1966–76).
“We were in Yan’an, which is like the Valley Forge of Communist China; it’s where Mao consolidated his power before seizing the country in 1949. While there, we met some artists who were displaying their art on the street. It was okay, but it was dated 1990, so I asked, ‘Do you have any work from the 60s or 70s?’” said Billingsley. “We went over to one artist’s house, and the artwork was in terrible condition, rolled up in a closet, on a dirt floor.”
Hyer also described how the artist “pulled this huge roll of art out from under the bed. It had been under there for years, and he didn’t even look at it. He started unfolding it, and we asked ‘Can we buy some of this?’ and he said, ‘Sure, it’s just going to be thrown away in the garbage.’ Then we asked who his teacher was, and he told us, so we went to Beijing and contacted the teacher—Jin Zhilin.” The man whose story became “From the Masses to the Masses.”
Though originally the film was to focus on a Yan’an group of five artists who painted together during the Cultural Revolution, Jin’s compelling story gave the issue of art and politics a personal edge. When the Cultural Revolution occurred, the Red Guard “put down all the people who were in authority above them, including the teachers,” said Billingsley.
Jin, an art teacher at the Central Academy of Art, was considered too Western since he was trained in Western oil painting and taught art with a Western flare. Because of his training, he was tortured in an effort to “rehabilitate” him. “Jin Zhilin was a teacher, an art teacher, and then he was persecuted and beaten and tortured every day for four months,” said Billingsley. “He tried to kill himself but didn’t succeed because he was too weak to throw himself out the window, so he was kind of hanging in the window and he couldn’t get out. Jin now says, ‘Had I been a little stronger, I may have thrown myself out the window—I would have fallen four stories, and I wouldn’t be here today.’” After serving eight years of hard labor, Jin has only one or two major paintings from the period before the Cultural Revolution that survived because he hid them.
The Red Guard considered art “dangerous” and opposing current political view. Art from earlier periods was often destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. “What we’ve found out from Chinese scholars is that it’s really important to see this work, because so much of the art in China was destroyed,” said Billingsley.
Jin’s journey as an artist during turbulent political changes provides a view of history through relevant pieces of art. Interviews between Hyer and Jin, footage of China, and paintings by Jin and others compose this artistic analysis.
Commerce and Creative Expression
Entirely in Ukrainian with English subtitles, “Ukraine Sonata” explores musical expression under Soviet oppression, the lack of funding when the old system collapsed, and the challenges presented in Ukraine’s new capitalist system. “In the Soviet system, musicians didn’t have to worry whether they would have money, because they were state-sponsored artists,” said Billingsley. “They did have restrictions, and we talked to a couple of musicians who said they lost work and never performed; they were starving to death until they found jobs in places like a spaghetti factory.”
Though Soviet regulations were often harsh, in some ways, capitalism is not much better. “The capitalist system allows musicians the freedom of expression, but it isn’t always beneficial in the end. Musicians say they have too much choice and when it comes right down to it, they have to write a jingle for McDonald’s to survive. They can’t even create the good music the Soviet system formerly imposed upon them,” Billingsley lamented.
Subtitles forces viewers to read the text in order to follow the movie. “There are a lot of Ukrainian voices in the film, but we wanted a Ukrainian to guide us through in English,” explained Billingsley. He had to make the decision between subtitles—a risk given the audience’s required participation— or English. “I think it’s a fascinating show, but you have to read it. Nowadays people are getting more into subtitles. Style-wise we could have dubbed it over, but I still think there’s power in hearing what people say even when you don’t understand it,” he added.
An Environmental and Political Timebomb
A geopolitical piece, “Faultlines & Pipelines” ventures into the war-torn Caucasus Mountains: home to the Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, Chechnya, and other peoples in conflict. In the midst of this turmoil lies one of the largest known oil reserves in the Caspian Sea, east of Azerbaijan. Supported by a consortium of oil companies, including those from the U.S. and Turkey, the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline has tipped the delicate geopolitical balance in a region emerging from Soviet Union dissolution.
This landlocked sea has presented a challenge for pipeline planners to determine the best route to get the oil out—geographically and politically. “They could go through Afghanistan, which is unrealistic; they could try Iran, which is against U.S. policy; or they could try Armenia, which won’t happen because they have a civil war with Azerbaijan. and they’re never going to give Armenia a dime of transit fees,” explained Billingsley. “Currently, there is only one way: north and west through Georgia and then straight down to Turkey, which is a ridiculously long route, but it’s the only politically viable route, so that’s where the pipeline is.”
The pipeline project—connecting Baku, Azerbaijan with Ceyhan, Turkey—is facing great opposition from environmental and political protestors alike. Environmental issues aside, funding the pipeline—billions of dollars of which came from World Bank—has been a focus of debate since the pipeline was announced. “The pipeline is estimated to be a $19 billion project, the world’s largest nonmilitary public works project,” said Billingsley. “It took a long time to even get it to work, to make it hold up politically. And to complicate things, the Caspian Sea’s divided up between Turkmenistan, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Iran. They all claim the oil fields. Russia would like to see the pipeline come through their territory and gain from the oil, but the West has the money to get the oil out of the fields, and they don’t want the pipeline in Russia.”
Despite the project’s faults, the countries through which the pipeline will run are more than willing to accept the proceeds coming from transit fees. “The pipeline had to go through three countries to get out, but all the countries were happy to have it. In fact, countries were fighting over it,” said Billingsley. “It represents billions of dollars in transit fees. Georgia doesn’t have a lick of oil, but the fact that the pipeline will go right through the middle and then cut south means that Georgia will make a lot of money—maybe billions—just by letting them use the territory to transit the oil.” One caveat for having the pipeline transit, each country is also responsible for protecting the pipeline from sabotage.
Covering international issues from war and politics to art and music, Beyond the Border represents a rare glimpse into a world that is foreign to most Americans. A panel of experts, moderated by Ringer, brought the series to a close with discourse. “At the end of the series, we brought a group of experts together who spoke on some of the key global issues right now, referring back to the series but not solely focused on the subjects covered in the series,” said Ringer.
The series aired on Utah’s KBYU—a PBS affiliate— and is expected to be released in DVD format for personal and educational use, with teacher guides designed for classroom instruction.
Though this is the Kennedy Center’s first attempt at outreach in this form, Ringer said he is optimistic about the series and is hopeful for similar opportunities in the future. “I hope this is just the beginning. I hope Beyond the Border will become an annual series, but it’s not inexpensive, so we’ll have to see how it goes,” he said. “We think this will help us reach a new audience, and it will help us fulfill an untapped portion of the center’s mission—a national outreach through production of information.”