Extreme Humanitarians

Todd Lillethun

Handling Good Samaritans on film can be a daunting task. It’s difficult not to have reverence for people who throw themselves into harm’s way for the sake of helping others, but filmmakers still need to humanize them so that they won’t appear out of reach to the audience. Beyond the Call, a new documentary by Adrian Belic, who directed the Academy Award nominated Ghengis Blues, falls prey to these pitfalls.

All the elements are present for a terrific story, so it’s a shame the film does not rise to the occasion. The Samaritans in question belong to Knightsbridge International, a small nonprofit that circles the globe in search of humanitarian crises, led by the indefatigable Ed Artimis. After retiring from a career as a mortgage broker, Ed founded the organization in 1995 in order to provide aid quickly to foreign countries without the red tape generated by other organizations. 

Living in a modest ranch house in the Los Angeles suburbs, Ed wakes up in the middle of the night to check his e-mail and sift through the pile of letters he receives every week, each a cry for help half a world away. He regrets how few he is able to respond to, and chooses his assignments based on a quixotic mix of urgency and risk. 

With donated supplies, and on his own dime, he flies to the crisis at hand. In Afghanistan, he delivers food and tents to cold and hungry villagers shortly before the U.S. invasion. While U.S. bombs explode in the distance, he ponders the misery the Taliban has caused, and laments about how most people in America never leave their own backyards. 

In nearby Tajikistan, he barters with a food broker and then pays him to sneak truckloads of food over the border to more starving villagers. He says, I just paid $38,000 in cash to a total stranger for food that I don’t even know exists.” Indeed it does, and the next day the delivery is made as promised. 

Two other middle-aged men join the cause to make the missions with him: Jim Laws, a cardiologist, and Walt Ratterman, a solar power expert. Jim provides expert medical assistance and a cool head to his work. He also indulges in playboy eccentricities at home by collecting military vehicles and Napoleon artifacts, and riding a scale model railroad in his backyard. Walt works on a farm, is very bright and soft-spoken, and lives a relatively simple life. Their personalities and expertise balance each other out, but this is mostly Ed’s movie. Interviews at Jim’s estate feature Jim reminiscing about past missions and considering what a quiet life he might be leading if it weren’t for meeting Ed.

Fueled by a sort of weekend warrior mentality – what might be called Extreme Humanitarianism” – their missions are typically set in distant locales during or after some violent upheaval. Their flak jackets resemble rock concert tour T-shirts , with Relief Missions” stitched on the back over a list of all the countries to which they’ve traveled. 

After awhile, though, all this selflessness and goodwill makes the film feel more like a recruiting vehicle than a documentary. Some of the darker aspects of their work, such as when Jim talks about having a curse put on him when a child dies in his arms, receive little attention. And instead of exploring some of Ed’s contradictions, the film settles for simple moralizing: We are all brothers and sisters,” You have to belong to a cause that’s bigger than yourself,” etc.

At one point, Ed and his team attempt to deliver food and medical supplies to a village in the Philippines, but are stopped by a guerrilla soldier guarding the road. The soldier doesn’t understand Ed’s request and dismisses him, whereby Ed begins fuming and demands to know the man’s name, presumably in order to file a complaint. Jim calmly defuses the situation, but Ed is inconsolable and is ready to call off the whole mission. Jim later admits that Ed’s demanding manner sometimes gets in the way, but the episode is otherwise brief and the chance to reveal a perceived chink in Ed’s armor slips past. 

Films such as Sister Helen and Born into Brothels stand out as more successful at handling the sainthood” dilemma. Sister Helen couches her personal mission in terms of her own troubled life experience, and the filmmakers in Born Into Brothels are often critical of their own motives. The tension between work and personal conflicts make the heroes in both films heroic and compelling. Beyond the Call fails to dig much deeper than its reverence for its subjects.

And yet in the end the film still strongly makes the case for helping others less fortunate. The contrast between the dust-bitten mountains of Afghanistan, with its impoverished villages and desperate faces, and Walt’s farm in rural Pennsylvania, with its bucolic landscape and solar-powered machines, speaks volumes.

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Todd Lillethun is a writer and filmmaker in Chicago.
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