10 Eye-Opening ‘Vice’ Documentaries
Watching a Vice documentary is always a crazy experience. Founded in 1994 by Shane Smith, Suroosh Alvia, and Gavin McInnes, Vice has gone from a slick magazine to a little media empire in just 20 years, but that hasn’t changed its intense style. Armed with only a camera, Vice reporters often find themselves in the strangest, scariest situations, giving us glimpses into worlds and lives we’d never otherwise see.
10In Saddam’s Shadow
Has anyone heard about Iraq lately? Though it was once the most talked-about nation in the world, there haven’t been a lot of stories focusing on Iraq since the US pulled out. Curious as to what’s going on in the country’s capital these days, Vice co-founder Suroosh Alvi flew to Baghdad in 2013 to check out the aftereffects of the American invasion.
It wasn’t the first time Alvi had visited the city. He’d been there in the early 2000s, making the documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad. Back then, he wasn’t even allowed to leave his armored vehicle in certain areas of the city. However, when he returned to Iraq the following decade, he found Baghdad had changed radically—in many ways, for the worse.
Saddam Hussein’s tyranny had given way to brutal violence between Sunni and Shiite radicals, leading to 1,600 deaths in 2012 alone. Major streets and neighborhoods were dotted with checkpoints where guards searched vehicles with ineffective bomb detectors. But the most insightful scenes come when Alvi talks to Baghdadi locals from various walks of life.
When interviewing Waleed Nesyif, a heavy metal rocker who fled the country in 2004, Alvi learned that Baghdad is an extremely dangerous city for musicians. Anyone caught carrying a guitar is marked for death, and Nesyif has received multiple threats for his rock star ways. Other subcultures like emo kids and biker punks are harassed as well, but the group facing the most persecution is the gay community. While you might assume things have improved since homophobic Hussein was kicked out, a gay activist reveals that, “In the past, you had the fear, and now the fear has increased.”
That’s a common sentiment Alvi runs across throughout Baghdad. Many people want Western-style freedom but paradoxically long for the days of old Saddam. At the very least, the man provided stability. In a very pointed moment, Nesyif tells Alvi, “The worst thing America has done to Iraq and Iraqis is this: They made a dictator look like an angel in comparison to what we have right now.”
9One Of America’s Most Notorious Militias
The world “militia” automatically conjures up images of white conspiracy theorists dressed in camouflage and armed with assault rifles. They spend their days training in the woods, buying crates full of canned goods, and preaching against the impending New World Order. However, Norman Olson and Ray Southwell say you shouldn’t believe the media hype. The founders of the infamous Michigan Militia claim real militiamen aren’t fanatical, far-out terrorists. They’re just concerned citizens looking out for the little guy . . . while wearing camo and preaching against a unified world government.
Regardless of your opinion on militias, we can all agree the media usually portrays them in a negative light. However, One of America’s Most Notorious Militias takes a slightly different approach. While not commending the group, the documentary definitely doesn’t condemn. Instead, reporter Thomas Morton lets Olson and Southwell express their opinions and explain why they believe militias are crucial to preserving American liberty.
Indeed, Olson and Southwell don’t look like your stereotypical right-wing nut jobs. As they sit at a table and reminisce about old times, these elderly gents seem quite congenial. Olson even pulls out a scrapbook of clippings from the Michigan Militia’s glory days, explaining how his group helped downtrodden citizens stand up for their rights when Big Brother came knocking.
Of course, there’s a dark side to the conversation, especially when Morton brings up Timothy McVeigh’s connection to the Michigan Militia. The Oklahoma City Bombing killed the ’90s militia movement and eventually brought an end to the Michigan group. Olson dismisses McVeigh’s involvement and blames the CIA.
Like many far-right conspiracy theorists, Olson and Southwell view the federal government as a tyrannical agency that wants to confiscate everyone’s firearms. However, they also believe the economy will eventually collapse, plunging America into total anarchy. Olson and Southwell want to be ready for either extreme and hope to restart their militia in Alaska.
“Call us crazy,” says Olson, “call us fanatics, call us loons, but don’t call us shortsighted.”
8SOFEX: The Business Of War
Comic-Con aside, SOFEX is the scariest convention in the world. Held every two years in Amman, Jordan, SOFEX provides buyers from 85 countries with the latest advancements in technology, efficiency, and dependability. Only this isn’t a trade show for luxury cars or consumer electronics. The buyers at SOFEX are high-ranking generals, and the vendors are hawking the craziest weapons on the planet.
An acronym for “Special Operations Forces Exhibition and Conference,” SOFEX is hosted by King Abdullah II, and the US is one of its biggest backers. And as Vice co-founder Shane Smith discovered, over 300 top dog generals sit in attendance, all armed with loads of cash. These military men spend their time strolling through a crowded floor room, shopping at stalls from nations like America, China, Germany, and Kazakhstan. They don’t just buy everyday machine guns. They’re taking home tanks, helicopters, rockets, and drones, all of which will end up killing someone.
What’s particularly disturbing about SOFEX is its casual party atmosphere. The expo starts off with an air show, generals chat with friends while sipping coffee, and Special Ops from around the world even compete in an Ultimate Warrior competition to see who’s the very best. “You know, it’s weird, man,” as one Marine sergeant puts it. “It’s like . . . everybody’s real cordial with each other. But, like, at the end of the day, we’re, like buying weapons to destroy each other with.”
What’s even more upsetting is when Smith realizes most of these firearms will probably be used against civilians, and some will even end up in the hands of terrorists. It just goes to show the military-industrial complex doesn’t discriminate. They’ll sell weapons to anyone who’s got the money.
7Internet Scamming In Ghana
Have an email account? Then you’ve undoubtedly received one of those spam messages asking you to make an investment in some shady company. Or perhaps you’ve gotten a letter from a lovely lady dying to make your acquaintance. Either way, there’s a good chance that email came from Ghana. Known as the Internet capital of Africa, Ghana is home to a unique brand of cybercrime called Sakawa. It’s a bizarre combination of technology and ancient magic that relies on human greed and divine intervention.
During his trip to Ghana, Thomas Morton (reporting for Vice‘s sister site, Motherboard) met up with some Sakawa crooks who make their money ripping off gullible Westerners. Their plots range from credit card fraud to romance scams, but they all involve visiting the local Juju priest for a special blessing. Acting as a middle man, the shaman asks the spirits to help the Sakawa scammers find an easy mark. In exchange, the criminal has to do something horrific like sleep in a coffin or drink menstrual blood.
Sakawa might sound bizarre, but as Morton points out, it’s far from a fringe belief. Sakawa is a huge part of Ghanaian culture. There are Sakawa songs, Sakawa clothes, and Sakawa movies.
Life isn’t easy for an African cybercriminal. While a lot of hype surrounds the Sakawa lifestyle, most of these scam artists are unemployed men who can’t find legitimate jobs. As of the release of this documentary, one-third of young Ghanaians are out of work, and no other opportunities are popping up.
Sakawa is also hurting the country’s reputation, causing Ghana to be restricted from most e-commerce sites. Hoping to save its economic future, the government is cracking down on Sakawa crooks, but the culture and crimes are still going strong. Just check your spam folder.
6The Gun Markets Of Pakistan
We certainly hope traveling to Darra Adamkhel wasn’t on your bucket list because you’ll never step foot inside this Pakistani city. The place has been closed to outsiders since 2009, probably because Darra is pretty popular with local Taliban insurgents. Why do terrorists and militants spend so much time in this little village? It just so happens to be home to the largest illegal gun market on the globe.
Fortunately for armchair travelers, Suroosh Alvi visited Darra before the government closed it off. Surrounded by armed bodyguards, Alvi went from store to store, admiring guns that will probably wind up in the hands of angry insurgents. The weapons range from American Muzzelites to German Lugers, but perhaps the most fascinating segment involves a deaf-mute craftsman building pistols by hand.
Even the most ardent Second Amendment proponents will be shocked to see how easily these guns are made and how cheaply they’re sold. In one store, Alvi finds a handgun for as little as $36. (Compare that to the standard Glock 17, a popular pistol that often costs around $600 in America.)
5UK’s Scariest Debt Collector
In a past life, Shaun Smith was an underworld enforcer (or “mediator,” as he likes to put it) who took gangland violence to a whole new level. After a short prison stint, Smith decided to leave the world of crime behind and become a debt collector. While it isn’t blowing up rivals or mowing competitors down with a machine gun, it’s hardly clean living.
A lot of Smith’s work lies in that tricky borderland between “legal” and “criminal.” In one tense scene straight out of a movie, Shaun hunts down a debtor and threatens him with physical violence. If the money isn’t paid by the end of the day, the debtor will have to “speak” to Smith’s burly droogs. Smith actually has quite a few lackies who train at his gym and occasionally accompany him on jobs. Many of them are junkies or mentally disturbed, and we even feel a bit of sympathy for Smith’s protegee Nat Taylor, who was sexually abused as a child and often mutilates himself.
However, it’s not easy to feel any sympathy for Smith himself. Near the end of the film, he delivers a short monologue about how he wishes he’d lived a normal life. He even bemoans the fact he has “no one” to “sort” his problems. Yet this is the same man who casually mentions how a double-crossing friend is going to meet with an “accident.”
Smith has killed scores of thugs and even thinks it’s funny. When the reporter Graham Johnson asks Smith if he’s religious, the gangster says he isn’t, but “I do the sign of the cross. That’s just respect for people who have passed away. And probably a few people that I’ve put away myself.” He gets a big laugh out of that.
4Bride Kidnapping In Kyrgyzstan
Feeling unlucky in the romance department? Can’t get a girl to go out on a date? Then grab a ticket and fly to Kyrgyzstan where you’re bound to steal some girl’s heart . . . or at least steal the girl.
Bride kidnapping is a troubling tradition that supposedly dates back to ancient times, and even though it’s technically illegal, nearly half of rural Kyrgyz weddings result from these abductions. And while we’ve read about this horrible abuse before, it’s quite different to actually watch a woman kicking and screaming while leering men throw her into a car.
In this truly disturbing documentary, journalist Thomas Morton rides along with Kubanti, a young man who’s decided he’s tired of playing the waiting game. Backed by four groomsmen, Kubanti tricks his girlfriend into meeting them at a watering hole where she’s snatched and carted off to the bridal yurt. Watching this scene (which starts at 12:24) is like watching a real-life horror movie. The young woman is struggling and screaming for her mother while multiple thugs hold her down and try to placate her. “All girls must get married,” one of them says. The whole time, the girl’s neighbors just watch and grin.
Afterward, she’s spirited away to the groom’s compound, where his female relatives quickly break her down. The girl accepts Kubanti’s “proposal,” which leads to a ceremony, feasting, and plenty of vodka shots. In a post-wedding interview, Morton learns the unlucky bride did actually want to marry Kubanti . . . just not yet. She wanted to finish her degree and get married eventually without being hauled off by a van full of brutes. However, she seems to accept her fate, just like almost all kidnapped brides do. Hopefully, she won’t join the growing number of forced brides who end up as prostitutes or suicide victims.
While Kyrgyz men claim bride kidnapping is an honorable tradition, Morton calls it as he sees it: a chauvinistic crime men do simply “because they can.”
3Blood Sacrifice In Sumba
In this age of iPhones and Xboxes, we like to think the world has moved beyond macabre customs like blood sacrifices. However, on the island of Sumba, Indonesia, people still practice a yearly ritual involving boxing, spears, and sea worms. And every so often, somebody dies.
The Sumbanese people are divided into several isolated clans, each with its own languages and practices. Despite their differences, these groups share quite a few similarities. They’re farmers who rely on the ground for their crops, and they all believe that blood plays an important part in yielding a good harvest. “We need blood,” an old man tells journalist Milene Larsson. “We slaughter chickens. We slaughter pigs for their blood. Even humans are sacrificed for prosperity and good fortune.”
The festivities take place every February and March and kick off with a round of disturbing animal sacrifices followed by a boxing match so wild that Mike Tyson wouldn’t participate. It’s known as the Pajura—fighters from various clans meet up at night, tie bones and horns to their fists, and whale away on their opponents.
But that pales in comparison to the Pasola, a mock battle that starts after the Nyale sea worms swim to shore. During the Pasola, horsemen armed with blunt spears charge across an open field, hurling sticks at enemy riders. If the spears just so happen to crush a few skulls or cut a couple of throats, all the better. The more dead bodies, the bigger the harvest.
In addition to the madness of the Pasola itself, the documentary provides a few odd glimpses into the daily life of the Sumbanese people. These aren’t primitive cavemen living in mud huts. We see young men on cell phones, a woman wearing an anime T-shirt, and a warrior obsessed with Britney Spears. But technology and pop culture haven’t changed the Sumbanese perspective on death. Blood is a part of everyday life, and it’s all in good fun, especially if somebody loses an eye.
2Sewers Of Bogota
The next time you think you have it rough, check out Sewers of Bogota. Thomas Morton traveled to the tunnels beneath Bogota, Colombia and found an underworld of Dantean proportions.
Surrounded by human waste, scores of men, women, and children battle rats, floods, and darkness every day. These refugees from society steal to survive and spend their evenings sleeping on mats and smoking basuco (a mixture of crack residue, gas, and chemicals). As he staggers past fecal stalagmites and rotten rodents, Morton interviews a man whose wife was swept away by flood waters, a woman who gave birth on the streets at 15, and a guy who woke up to find something nasty chewing on his eyelid. But as one sewer dweller puts it, “You’re still safer sleeping in here than out there.”
That’s because the streets are crawling with police officers and even death squads. In the 1980s, Bogota’s upper-class citizens decided to wipe the poor off the streets, and armed vigilantes still stalk the sewers, hunting down “disposables.” In perhaps the most disturbing sequence, Morton finds a manhole where hit men burned 22 kids alive.
These ghastly acts bring to mind the crimes of the Nazis or the Khmer Rouge, only these death squads are roaming the sewers as you read this. In fact, in the relatively short time Morton spends in Bogota, he and his crew even run across a group of killers, but they manage to escape with their lives.
1The Vice Guide To North Korea
We’ve all heard about North Korea’s nutty propaganda posters, the electricity shortages and the deification of the dictatorial Kims. In fact, we’ve published quite a few lists on the Hermit Kingdom. However, reading an article about North Korea is one thing. Seeing its insanity onscreen is something different altogether, an experience akin to falling down a rabbit hole into in a communistic Wonderland where everyone is mad.
Released in 2008, Inside North Korea is one of the most surreal documentaries you’ll ever watch. At times looking like a fictional parody, the film follows Shane Smith, who—after nearly two years of trying to find a legitimate way into the country—bribes a Chinese consulate and is finally escorted into the most isolated nation in the world. The moment Smith and his cameraman step foot in Pyongyang, things get very weird very fast. One of the first things Shane quickly realizes is that he isn’t a tourist. He’s on a tour. “You come in,” he says, “You’re shown what you’re shown, you’re escorted out, you’re escorted the whole time . . . ”
Accompanied by a guard, a guide, and secret police, Smith is taken on a ground tour of the major North Korean landmarks. Making sure to avoid any signs of poverty and imprisonment, officials escort him to sites like the captured USS Pueblo, the Pyongyang Metro, the Great People’s Library, and the International Friendship Hall. Along the way, the crew is threatened multiple times with arrest, meets the desperately lonely “Tea Girl,” peruses North Korea’s modern music library, and eventually ends up at the Arirang Games, a truly amazing spectacle of color and coordination.
Even though this documentary is several years old, not a lot has changed in North Korea since Vice’s visit. Kim Jong-il has died, Kim Jong-un took his place . . . and that’s about it. “This is Soviet Russia,” Smith observes. “This is Maoist China. I’ve come back in a time warp.”
Watching this documentary, you really appreciate how poor, underdeveloped, and eerie North Korea is. The streets are empty, the people are joyless, and the government is always, always watching.