Interview: U.N. Me Film Maker Ami Horowitz

In the new documentary U.N. Me, first-time film maker Ami Horowitz sets out to expose what he sees as the institutional failings of the United Nations.

To cover the scandals, corruption, and bureaucratic and philosophic absurdities of the 67-year-old world-peace organization, Horowitz and his co-writer and co-director Matthew Goff employ the sometimes whimsical humor and first-person, muck-racking gonzo style currently popularized by Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock.

Using archival footage, animation, new interviews, and a visit to a current Peacekeeping mission in Cote d’Ivorie, the film tackles heavy topics such as sexual slavery, human rights, Oil for Food, Peacekeeper violence, and the Rwandan genocide with a mix of outrage and irreverence.

I sat down with Horowitz in Chicago last week to talk about his documentary (which he prefers to call “docutainment”) and what he feels are the problems facing the U.N. today.

U.N. Me is playing in theaters in select cities across the country.

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Being a lefty liberal type, after seeing the film I was surprised to read the press notes referring to your staunch conservatism. Your film obviously has a strong anti-U.N. agenda, but it never feels like a right-leaning political screed.

Ami Horowitz: I was sitting in the screening room at Fox Studios watching it with two powerful, liberal studio guys, and when the movie was over they turned to me and said, “Why do you think conservatives are going to want to see a liberal movie like this?” That’s a perfect reaction.

Every person working on the movie, outside of me, was liberal. My co-director, writers, producers, editors—I’m the only conservative in the bunch. I hired writers from The Onion, The Daily Show, and we had a lot of Michael Moore’s writers and editors.

You were an investment banker before, so how did you end up as a documentary film maker?

Horowitz: I had an epiphany. I didn’t think they even existed, but I tell you, they’re real. It was a Saturday night, I was sitting at home watching Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. I had seen it before, so I was just kind of drifting off. I don’t know why, but I was thinking about the U.N. And I was thinking about Rwanda and genocide for some reason.

As I’m sitting in my Upper West Side apartment, comfortably watching a movie, I’m thinking to myself, “There are people who are running for their lives in terror. And who is stopping this?” And it is obvious that it’s the U.N.’s role. It was born out of the ashes of the Holocaust and it’s its role to stop things like this.

And my first emotion was fury. I was getting really upset–I was sweating I was so upset. The second emotion was I felt really small. Here is this massive issue and there’s nothing I can do about it. Who am I? Who is going to listen to me? My kids don’t even listen to me. And then I looked over at the TV screen and had my epiphany. I started paying attention to what Michael was doing and I said, “Wow!” What an entertaining, engaging medium to get your point across in. That’s when I said, This is it.

Jody Williams, Nobel Peace Laureate and U.N. human-rights observer on Dafar

The next morning I woke up early and my wife knew something was wrong because I never wake up early on a Sunday morning and she goes, “Go back to sleep.” But within a week I had quit my job and started this movie. I had never done anything like this before. It took much more work and effort to get it done than I’d expected.

Principal photography took about two years because we shot all over the world. Just getting some of the interviews took months and months. Beforehand I felt the U.N. wasn’t working and I wanted to find out why. And I ended up finding out that the rabbit hole was far deeper than I thought. This thing is deep and it is dark and it is dangerous and it is ugly.

The first half of the film is much more irreverent, along the lines of a Morgan Spurlock documentary, but the second half gets very dark and serious.

Horowitz: That’s the way it happened in editing. For most of the film we were able somehow to take very dark things and put a sense of humor into it, but when it came to Rwanda, it wasn’t right. The toughest part is that balance between humor and pathos. I learned that pathos is much easier than humor. I didn’t realize that. I thought anyone could be funny. Turns out you can manipulate somebody’s emotion, but you can’t manipulate somebody to laugh. Something is either funny to them or it’s not. When we made this movie I was deathly afraid of people saying, “Great movie, but really tough to watch.” We had to make it watchable, so using humor was the key.

Of course when you make a documentary about something like this, you get positioned as a go-to expert on the subject.

Horowitz: I don’t want to be that guy. If I never hear the words “United Nations” again in my life it will be too soon. (Laughs)

You need to go out and make a completely different kind of film next.

Horowitz: Yeah, I’m going to make a romantic comedy. (Laughs)

Still until that comes along, here you are with this film, so I’m going to hit you with some U.N. questions. Do you think at its heart the idea of the U.N. is flawed?

Horowitz: Yes and no. Based on the differences in humans, I’m not sure we could ever have an organization like this that works universally. You are never going to have all good people, there will always be bad people. Having said that, I think the other part of the human condition is to always yearn for it, even though we might not think it’s possible. What makes us human and good is that we strive for it.

I would never give up on the idea of an organization that tries to bring people together to work together. I think it’s a wonderful idea, and I think it shows the best of humanity. Having said that, it can only work if the group has a foundation based in liberty and freedom. If those aren’t enshrined in your ethos, it’s not going to happen. There can’t be a moral blindness, and I think with the U.N. what you have is an extreme moral blindness.

I was struck by the weapons inspector who said that at the U.N. “process is outcome.”  The act of hoping for a better world becomes the process and the outcome, and nothing else is accomplished.

Horowitz: That’s one of my favorite lines in the movie. We’ll feel better because we are hoping.

So do you feel the U.N. is salvageable, or do we need to start over from scratch with something new?

Horowitz: I don’t think we need another organization. If the U.N. followed its own charter, the explicit ethos of the charter is liberty and freedom. Protection of human rights, liberty of man–these are all enshrined in the charter. But the U.N. has walked away from it. So if they were to go back to that, it is salvageable. But my guess is that they won’t, so I think the only solution is to start over with something else.

I think that the U.N. is the best example of big government: the bigger the government the bigger the problem. Because it’s big government writ large. And anytime you get something too big, it’s always going to be riddled with fraud and bureaucracy to different extents. But with the U.N. you couple that with secrecy, and that’s when it all goes to hell.

At least with the U.S. Congress there is a certain amount of transparency. We elect these people and have journalists who are inside and so things end up coming out no matter what. The U.N. is not like that–it’s a dark place with a lot of secrecy.

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“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

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