Tribeca’s ‘Shadow World’ and ‘Houston, We Have a Problem!’ Indulge in Conspiratorial Nonsense


Megadeth’s “Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good!” would have been the perfect soundtrack theme for Shadow World. Johan Grimonprez’s documentary makes the conspiracy-friendly contention that modern superpowers base all political decisions, first and foremost, on war-profiteering considerations. “Politicians are nothing more than sales reps” for the munitions industry, says one of the film’s many talking heads. The director posits that the world is now shaped by clandestine arms deals conducted, often illegally, by the U.S. and Great Britain, but Shadow World sells its argument about the West’s criminality not with reporting but through paranoid propaganda.

Adapting Andrew Feinstein’s 2011 book of the same name, Grimonprez’s film is a scattershot affair, undercutting its central case by hopping around various geopolitical points of interest on a dime (one second he’s talking Chile, the next he’s focused on Saudi Arabia). Furthermore, it indulges in frequent poetic interludes — some set to WWI archival footage and anecdotes — that are, at best, only tangentially related to the real issues at hand.

Shadow World points its finger at the governments of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Barack Obama, all of which were/are apparently driven to make policy decisions to enrich corporations (like Halliburton and Lockheed Martin) that benefit from perpetual conflict. Some of these segments are superficially persuasive, as with one concerning America and England’s too-cozy friendship with Saudi Prince Bandar. However, by the time former New York Times writer Chris Hedges, sans evidence, blames Israel’s nuclear stockpile for creating Iran’s urge to acquire atomic weaponry, Shadow World has italicized its skewed belief that it’s the world’s democracies who, in secret, truly act as agents of global intolerance, disruption, slaughter, and chaos. Grimonprez’s film exploits fear for its own gain — a tactic it accuses its nominal villains of perpetrating.

An even more hysterical historical hypothesis is advanced by Houston, We Have a Problem!, described as “docu-fiction” by its Slovenian director, Žiga Virc — heavy emphasis on “fiction.” Posing as a real-life Cold War saga but operating as a feature-length prank, the film details the surprising twentieth-century relationship between the United States and Yugoslavia, forged when the former, desperate to surpass the Soviets in the race to the moon, opted to buy the latter’s space program for a cool $2.5 billion. This satisfied both countries, ostensibly because America had flawed technology but money to burn, while our socialist business partners possessed advanced plans and know-how — thanks to a 1920s genius whose work was only unearthed post-WWII — but severe debt.

If that sounds like wholesale nonsense, that’s the entire point. Houston, We Have a Problem! blends authentic footage with all manner of staged material — present-day trips back to Yugoslavia with one of the program’s engineers; interviews with bogus historians; counterfeit texts — to feign legitimacy as an actual documentary, even as its alternate-reality tale proves so absurd as to be (rightly) unbelievable. Meta-commentary from philosopher Slavoj Žižek is interspersed throughout the primary action — he suggests that mounting tensions between the countries might have been the reason behind both JFK’s assassination and the domestic importation of the notorious Yugo. The underlying point of this elaborate stunt is that modern audiences are all too willing to believe (and be manipulated by) anything sold in a familiar nonfiction package. No matter how valid that theory might be, there are surely more compelling ways to offer it than via a one-note, 88-minute-long joke.