Danis Tanovic exposing baby milk formula scandal
‘TO PUT it brutally and simply: babies are dying and that’s it,” says Danis Tanovic. “This story needed to be told. I can’t find any other reasons.”
Tanovic, the Bosnian filmmaker behind the Oscar-winning No Man’s Land, is referring to his motivation for making his new film Tigers, a tale inspired by true events about the devastating impact of baby milk formula on the health of infants in poor countries where parents are encouraged by incentivised doctors to use it instead of breast milk.
Set in Pakistan and based on the true story of Syed Aamir Raza, a salesman for Nestlé turned industry whistleblower, the film – which has its Scottish premiere at the Take One Action! Film Festival next weekend – follows Raza-cipher Ayan (Bollywood star Emraan Hashmi), a pharmaceutical rep for the fictional Lasta corporation who realises that the product he’s pushing on hospitals and doctors is having a fatal effect on the babies it’s being used to feed.
As the film illus-trates, the problems arise because of a lack of clean drinking water: the dire economic circumstances of the families being advised to use the formula mean it is frequently diluted with unsafe water. The malnutrition this causes is severe – as evidenced by the harrowing documentary footage of sick babies that Tanovic uses in the film, some of which was shot in 1989, the rest being filmed as recently as 2013. It’s an ongoing scandal in other words, something illustrated not just by the fact that Raza, the real-life inspiration for the film, took up his crusade in 1997, but also by the way Tanovic winds the clock back even further, beginning the movie with an excerpt from the 1978 US Senate hearings – chaired by Senator Edward Kennedy – into the marketing of breast milk substitutes in the developing world by multinational corporations.
“What amazes me is that the story is such an old story and people still don’t know about it,” says Tanovic. “I just showed the film recently at the Sarajevo Film Festival and people didn’t know about it. They were basically shocked that people would feed babies this kind of thing. Then I had some doctors who came to me and started talking not just about baby milk, but about medicines and how they’d been pressured by these companies to basically sell their products. It’s destroying our society when you go to the doctor expecting him to give you the medicine he’s supposed to give you but he’s giving you the one the company is pressuring him to use.”
As much as Tigers is about raising awareness of the consequences of using breast milk substitutes in countries lacking clean drinking water, it’s also an inquiry into the corporate responsibility – or lack thereof – of the multinationals that are continuing to profit from these practices. Their deep pockets and litigious nature makes getting the truth out there a trickier task and it’s one of the reasons Tigers – the name is a reference to the ruthless ideology employees of these companies are encouraged to adopt to make them better salespeople – took so long to get made. Indeed, Tanovic was first approached about making Raza’s story into a film almost a decade ago when British writer and producer Andy Paterson (Girl With A Pearl Earring, The Railway Man) told him about it at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.
“I was interested and discussed it and decided to check some facts because there were some holes in the story,” Tanovic says. “But we went to Pakistan and basically realised that the story was still going on. And that’s when we decided to go and do it. It took eight years,” he continues. “At one point I didn’t think it was going to happen so I was going to do a film about how it was impossible to make movies about these subjects because everybody is afraid of these companies.”
He ended up weaving this idea into the finished film, using Skype meetings between a producer (played by Danny Huston), a filmmaker, a lawyer, a World Health Organisation representative (Maryam d’Abo) and the film’s protagonist, Ayan, as a framing device to highlight the legal complexities of telling the latter’s story.
One of the other pay-offs to getting the film made, though, is that it finally brings Raza’s story to a bigger audience, which is no small thing given all the personal sacrifices he’s had to make in order to do the right thing. These have included leaving Pakistan and being separated from his wife and two children for seven years until they could all be reunited in his new home in Toronto, where the film had its world premiere at last year’s Toronto Film Festival.
Needless to say, Raza (who now works as a taxi driver) was the guest of honour. “It was a really wonderful moment for him,” says Tanovic. “At the end of the film he came up on stage and everybody just cheered. It was probably one of the best moments of his life.” n
Tigers screens as part of the Take One Action! Film Festival at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, on Saturday and Glasgow Film Theatre on 20 September. For tickets and further information on the festival visit www.takeoneaction.org.uk
Take One Action! highlights
The Price We Pay
With corporations around the globe continuing to avoid paying tax, the festival’s opening night film offers a timely look at the way multinational companies shield their profits by stashing them in tax havens. Director Harold Crooks traces the history of these legal loopholes back to London in the aftermath of the Second World War and assembles an array of interviewees to trace how the evolution of this system undermines the ability of governments to pay for the basic social services that the customers of these companies – ie us – expect and demand.
Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Wednesday and Friday; Glasgow Film Theatre, Thursday
This Changes Everything
Produced by Alfonso Cuaron and based on Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything, this documentary follows Klein as she travels the globe to explore why the narrative about climate change and our relationship with capitalism needs to alter if it’s to have any impact on averting an impending crisis. Klein challenges the emotive imagery frequently used by environmental groups to shame us into action (she’s no fan of polar bears) and shows how right-wing think-tanks sometimes have a better understanding of the scale of the catastrophe than those they’re trying to undermine.
Filmhouse, Edinburgh, 27 September
Produced by Fast Food Nation writer Eric Schlosser and Desperate Housewives star and activist Eva Longoria, this documentary exposes the exploitation of US agricultural labourers by following a group of Florida tomato pickers as they attempt to challenge the $4 trillion global supermarket industry with their co-operative-minded Fair Food initiative.
Glasgow Film Theatre, Saturday; Filmhouse, Edinburgh, 22 September
Proof that one person’s trash is another’s treasure comes in the form of the true-life story of the Recycled Orchestra. Formed by a group of kids from Cateura in Paraguay who made instruments out of rubbish from the landfill site that towers over their homes, the orchestra became a viral sensation when their local concerts were broadcast online. Landfill Harmonic documents the journey they subsequently undertook to the US to play a series of concerts, offering insights into their lives along the way.
Glasgow Film Theatre, 23 September; Filmhouse, Edinburgh, 26 September
The Wanted 18
The title refers to a herd of 18 dairy cows deemed a security risk by Israeli security forces. And the reason for this? They were owned by a group of Palestinians from the West Bank town of Beit Sahour who were attempting to set up their own dairy collective as a stepping-stone to self-sufficiency during the First Intifada. Directors Paul Cowan and Amer Shomali mix animation and documentary techniques to tell this story in all its farcical absurdity. Scotland’s Makar Liz Lochhead will join the post-screening discussion. n
Filmhouse, Edinburgh, 21 September; CCA, Glasgow, 22 September