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An Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Shelley Saywell

Elizabeth Mandelman | Posted July 23rd, 2009 | North America

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During IANSA’s Global Week of Action Against Gun Violence, Project Ploughshares held a public screening of Canadian documentary filmmaker Shelley Saywell’s Devil Bargain: A Journey into the Small Arms Trade. 



In Devil’s Bargain, Saywell tracks the global small arms trade.  Through the film, she illustrates the need for an international treaty to end the illegal flow of small arms, which fuels war and results in massive death and destruction.   


Based in Toronto, Shelley Saywell established Bashari Film Productions Inc. in 1987, to produce documentary films that focus on issues of human rights.  Through her films, she hopes to provide people with a perspective they might not otherwise receive, introducing the world to individuals both suffering from human rights violations and causing them. 


Saywell, who has been honored with UNESCO’s Gandhi Silver Medal for Promoting the Culture of Peace in 1997 and an Emmy in 2001 for Outstanding Investigative Journalism, was kind enough to participate in an interview with me, the questions and answers of which are below.





In your film, Devil’s Bargain, you focus for some time on violence (and rape) against women committed by soldiers in war-torn countries.  Do you think that the access these soldiers have to firearms empowers them to commit such crimes? 


Absolutely I do.   In 1995 I made a film about rape as a weapon of war focusing on rape in the Balkans, and small arms and light weapons were a major contributor to that terror campaign.    Women have no hope against armed men who have become inured to the violence and use the gun as a symbol of power and masculinity.  I asked why rape had become so prevalent in war and “soft conflict” zones, and the answer was “rape inflicts maximum pain”, and therefore is the most powerful attack mechanism – with the least amount of risk to the perpetrator.   The proliferation of guns, easy for any kid to use, have made this a daily occurrence in places like the Congo – where many women have been raped multiple times, Somalia, Darfur, and too many other places.


Taking it back to a domestic context (and one which applies to non-war torn countries), do you think that individuals that are abusive and that have access to guns are empowered by their firearms, and thus more abusive?


I believe that.  I am making a film about domestic violence in the immigrant South Asian/Arab community here.  In two of the stories I’m following the father/brother killed with a gun.  In one case, the gun he used was being “stored for a friend”, in another – a cabbie, shot both of his daughters multiple times.  Before that, he’d threatened them and their mother, shot out windows and car tires.  He might still have killed them without the gun, but the link of its possession to his violence and anger can’t be overlooked.  He felt powerless in our society, and the gun was a symbol of power to him according to his wife.


I made another film years ago called Angry Girls about girls and violence in Toronto.  I was shocked to learn that the majority of the teenage girls I was following had witnessed or experienced the death of a friend or family member by gun violence.   We are talking about the life of high school girls in many poorer neighbourhoods in Toronto.  


I’ve had a lot of individuals comment to me that for the Disarming Domestic Violence campaign to focus solely on women is unfair and biased.  Statistically, men make up the majority of perpetrators in cases of domestic abuse.  In addition, they also own the majority of firearms.  When you were filming Devil’s Bargain, did you come across many women involved in the illicit trade of small arms (because there were none featured in the film)?  If so, what were their roles?


There were no women involved in the illicit trafficking of weapons that I found.  That isn’t a scientific survey – but there were no female arms dealers that came across our radar, and we spent a year researching and reading reports before we began filming.   I think stats would bear out that this is predominantly a male game.  There were women involved in sales and PR for the big gun shows and “legal” trade, though much fewer than men.


Do you think the benefits of a screening process such as the one in Canada’s Firearms Act outweighs whatever the administrative/enforcement costs may be?


Yes.  When we measure COST we have to remember what these weapons do, in terms of individual terror and social instability.  When I grew up we never heard of gun violence in Toronto – that was New York or Detroit or somewhere else.  Now guns are becoming endemic.  We need to spend whatever it costs to try to control and register legal guns – so that the illicit trafficking can be monitored and stemmed.


Individuals who legally own their firearms and use them for sportsmanship purposes complain that it’s unfair to hold law-abiding citizens responsible for the protection of others through the Firearms Act and the registry.  How would you address this?


If you own a firearm legally, then you should appreciate and support the necessity of having strict controls.   I never understand the attitudes – especially of Americans with their Second Amendment rights – who believe binding gun laws and international treaties will somehow impinge on their rights.    All you have to do is look at a failed state like Somalia, where the law IS the gun, to know what the worst case alternative is.   The Registry is essential.




Fellow: Elizabeth Mandelman

Project Ploughshares in Canada


Bashari Film Productions Inc. Canada Canada's Firearms Act CanadianGunNutz.com Candice Hoeppner censorship Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women & Children Coalition for Gun Control Disarming Domestic Violence Disarming Domestic Violence Campaign domestic abuse domestic violence Donna Carrick Dr. Alok Mukherjee Dr. Barbara Kane First Annual Conference on the Prevention of Domestic Violence gang violence Garry Breitkreuz gun control IANSA Interim Place mental illness Montreal Massacre MP Candice Hoeppner MP Garry Breitkreuz Peacebuild police protection Project Ploughshares Shelley Saywell small arms small arms trade Toronto Police Services Board Wendy Cukier women's rights




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