Dziga Vertov, one of the world’s first and finest documentarians, defined the goal of documentary film as showing “life as it is.” Ami Horowitz’s U.N. Me accomplishes this and more — it is a detailed exposé of the failures of the United Nations. This film could have sunk into a dreary, depressing recital of the various horrors perpetrated under the U.N.’s watch (Darfur, Rwandan genocide, etc.), but Ami Horowitz skillfully weaves a narrative that strikes a careful balance between humor and information.
Horowitz is not your typical documentary filmmaker, and his regular, unpretentious charm sets the tone of his film. He began his life as a banker, until one night he had an epiphany. He was drifting off to sleep while watching Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine when he suddenly realized that this was the medium for him. The result was U.N. Me.
But what is U.N. Me? According to Horowitz, it’s “a love letter” to the United Nations, albeit a love letter with “constructive criticism.” But if U.N. Me is a love letter, then it’s the letter you write to a significant other threatening a break-up. You want the relationship to work, but there have to be some major changes. The movie recounts several of the major failings of the United Nations over its history: the sexual abuses and massacres committed by U.N. peacekeepers, the failure to stop Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, the U.N.’s inability to curb terrorism, the Oil-for-Food program, the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur, and the United Nation’s failure to support human rights across the world. Not exactly the most uplifting material. But U.N. Me is more than a recitation of the United Nation’s misdeeds; instead, it delves deeper into how the culture and the structure of the U.N. led to such debacles.
The best moments in the film consist of Horowitz’s interviews with various ambassadors and U.N. officials, whereby he reveals their corruption. His particularly wry sense of humor both exposes the obfuscations of his interviewees and satirizes their views. Horowitz credits Sacha Baron Cohen, Michael Moore, and Howard Stern for inspiring his interviewing style, but his own comedic voice is more serious and drier than theirs. “Writing comedy is hard,” he says. “It’s difficult getting the balance between pathos and humor.” A prime example of this problem occurs when Horowitz confronts an Iranian senior official over the hanging of homosexuals in Iran. Through his careful mocking, he exposes the insanity of the Iranian position.
Horowitz plays a key role in a number of dramatic moments throughout the film, and one can only gasp at his audacity in setting up these encounters. Not surprisingly, those were the most difficult parts of the film for him: “[The] hardest part [was] getting the balls to do certain things. It’s really hard to do that physically. Just to convince your legs to get up and do this. You’re sitting in the Sudanese or Iranian Embassy, and you have to confront these guys where anything could go wrong.” None of this trepidation comes across on the screen. He manages to stand up to the corrupt officials and display to the world their ineptitude and malevolence. Such pluckiness leads to several of the film’s better moments. Early in the movie, stonewalled by U.N. bureaucrats who refuse to allow him to meet with a high-ranking official of the Ivory Coast, Horowitz impetuously charges a military checkpoint. Eventually, he connives his way into his long-sought meeting by hiding in a group of other officials.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. U.N. Me ends with a message of hope. In Horowitz’s view, the U.N. is an organization that can be saved, but it must enforce its own charter and set aside the unworkable ideal of universality. The United States and North Korea will never agree on human rights, and Israel and Iran can’t agree on the right of Israel even to exist. Yet the United Nations operates under the assumption that all these nations should receive equal treatment, which inevitably leads to a system failure of the entire institution. The U.N. must begin the hard work of reform, Horowitz argues, before it can get back on the path of preserving human rights across the globe.
This movie is a beachhead for openly conservative documentaries. Waiting for “Superman” paved the way for documentaries presenting an arguably conservative viewpoint, but U.N. Me could be the first successful documentary acclaimed as frankly right of center by many viewers. It will open in theaters across the country on June 1 and be available simultaneously on video-on-demand. Horowitz, who is currently focused on promotional activities for U.N. Me, does not yet have any future projects planned, but he promises to continue making movies. “I’ve gotten the bug,” he says. Let’s hope that he continues, because in him we have a top-notch, conservative documentary filmmaker.
— Nathaniel Botwinick is an editorial intern at National Review Online.