Given the similarities between the US invasion of Panama in 1989 and our country’s recent invasion of Iraq, now would be a good time to view (or re-view) Barbara Trent’s documentary The Panama Deception, winner of an Academy Award for its exposure of covert us foreign policy in Panama. We are offered an opportunity to see Trent’s hard-hitting film and hear her speak at Dutchess Community College on March 24 as part of DCC’s film series Women Make Documentaries. Trent is now a professor at the University of North Carolina and head of the Empowerment Project, which provides resources and support for documentary filmmakers. She spoke by phone on a range of issues, including her new film, Waging Peace, mainstream media corruption, and the evils of Wal-Mart.
CHRONOGRAM: How does the situation in Iraq mirror the invasion of Panama?
BARBARA TRENT: In both cases, we have the Bushes, we have Cheney, we have the same newscasters onscreen telling us the government line, beating the drums of war, getting us all prepared. The reporting on the war gave us graphics to show how we’re moving in, making it very dramatic, told about our improved weapons. The message was, we are certainly the most powerful country in the world, making us feel prideful—as opposed to what we’re doing to the Iraqis, blowing off flesh down to the bone.
Now that it’s all done, the media is attempting to appear aggressive and investigative. They’re saying maybe we were being lied to. Well, we knew that. Now Bush is being outed, so the media has to run it, but I’ll never believe an organization with the size and funding of the news media cannot access what I can access. They are feeding us lies from a government put into power by corporations.
It’s painful for me to see the American public, who I find generous, loving, decent people, separated from the rest of the world by language and power. 9/11 changed that. It showed us we’d better be aware of what our policies around the world are and how deep the passions of our enemies are. We have to understand why these policies don’t serve us and don’t bring democracy to the rest of the world. What makes a terrorist is not the training camps. It’s being eight or twelve years old and watching a bomb fall on your house and seeing your family die in front of your eyes.
C: Do you find that other countries have more accurate news media than ours?
BT: In Latin America, for example, all the countries except Brazil speak Spanish. So anyone in Latin America can pick up a newspaper from three nearby countries and get three different takes on the news. It’s the same in Europe, where most people speak more than one language. In this country, the consolidation of the ownership of the media is one of the greatest threats to democracy. Finding alternative media is critical.
The mainstream media draws the attention of the American public to things like Bill Clinton’s sex life. They ought to be informing us of news that impacts the quality of our lives and our children’s lives. Like when servicemen sent to Iraq get their health benefits and pay cut, as well as cuts to counseling when they return. Bush is treating the troops like cannon fodder. Talk about the cycle of violence you begin when you send them out, and once they come back from war, they will never be the same. We’re talking generations of families where fathers learn abuse in the military.
C: Your latest film is about the anti-war movement?
BT: Waging Peace is a half-hour documentary that people around the country can use as a fundraising and organizing tool for demonstrations on March 20, the anniversary of the beginning of the “Shock and Awe” bombing of Iraq. It shows how, last February 15th, ten to twenty million people around the world showed up on the streets, giving reasons why we should not go to war, and now we know the reasons were true. The film shows footage of the demonstrations and interviews with leaders of the international solidarity movement, analyzing what needs to be done and how we can become more effective.
C: What strategies do they propose?
BT: Education is the most important component. People who have lost their jobs, who don’t have a lot of money, should know that the policies of this government are sending their jobs overseas. And people are contributing to that by buying clothes at Wal-Mart, for example, instead of paying someone local to repair their clothes. I mend my own clothes and wear them until they’re ragged. Wal-Mart is the largest importer of cheap goods in the world. They have driven the minimum wage way down in countries where they tell suppliers, “We’ll buy trillions of T-shirts if you can sell them for ten cents less apiece.” And the suppliers put pressure down the line until the wages of workers and farmers go down. In order to meet these humongous contracts, we end up fueling the wars we’re fighting. That’s the most expensive T-shirt you’ve ever bought. The challenge is educating people about what’s really happening so they can make informed choices.
C: Are all the big chains like Wal-Mart? How about Target?
BT: Target is clearly not as bad. Wal-Mart has been busted by the Feds hundreds of times for forcing people to work overtime without paying them overtime wages, and for every kind of worker abuse. They have 400 percent turnover per year.
C: Are you making a film about Iraq?
BT: Actually, David Kasper, my filmmaking partner, is leading the charge on the Iraq cover-up. We need to raise a few hundred thousand dollars to get it out in a timely manner so people are educated to make decisions.
C: What kinds of things can people do?
BT: The biggest one is to learn and share with others. If you see injustice anywhere, stop and make a note of it. Buy local, buy organic—it sounds like a small thing, but it makes an enormous difference. Third world countries are producing food they can’t use and shipping it out of their countries, while their people don’t have enough to eat, because the International Monetary Fund is forcing them to pay off loans.
C: But what will happen to them if we don’t buy their exports?
BT: It’s a difficult situation. When things get so wrong, it makes it more difficult to right them. I’m not sure how to change policy in those countries. But Americans have to understand that if we don’t want war, we can’t consume the resources of the entire world. We installed Noriega, Hussein, the Taliban. They’re people who are easy to do business with because they don’t care about their people either.It’s hard to tell what’s right or wrong on a daily basis. I drive a gas-fueled car because I can’t afford an electric car. I accept things I do that contribute to the devastation of the planet, but I try to compensate by doing things that add to the solution.
The Panama Deception will be shown at 5:30pm on Wednesday, March 24, at the Dutchess Theater at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie. A discussion with the filmmaker will follow. Admission is free. For more information on the DCC series of women’s documentaries, screening weekly through March 31, call (845) 431-8612. To learn more about Trent’s work, visit www.empowermentproject.org