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The profits of doom

To restore its rubber tree plantation in Liberia, Firestone paid protection money to warlord Charles Taylor.
To restore its rubber tree plantation in Liberia, Firestone paid protection money to warlord Charles Taylor.Patrick Robert/Sygma/Corbis

One of the less discussed aspects of ISIL is its financing. Apparently it functions like any other corporation, selling plundered oil and other resources on the world market.

Who would do business with those aiding the business of murder? Anyone out for a buck, apparently. So suggest two new documentaries about similar arrangements in the past.

Frontline and ProPublica’s “Firestone and the Warlord” (on PBS Nov. 18 at 10 p.m.) presents a situation with uncanny parallels to that in Iraq and Syria today. It investigates the relationship between the rubber company of the title and Charles Taylor, the rebel leader in the civil war that ravaged Liberia from 1989 off and on until 2003.


Through voice-over narration, archival footage, and interviews, the film shows how, for pennies an acre, Firestone purchased a huge tract from the Liberian government in the 1920s and turned it into an antebellum-style rubber tree plantation. Thousands of local laborers earned a pittance and lived in squalor while their corporate overseers golfed and had cocktails.

Safe behind their gates, the Firestone management was seemingly unaware of the horror show outside as Taylor and his army of carnivalesque crazies and drug-frenzied 12-year-olds battled for control of the country. When not in combat, Taylor’s army passed the time in an orgy of mass murder, torture, and rape. One of the executives interviewed for the film claimed he was unaware that anything was amiss until rebels grabbed his chauffeur and chopped off the soles of his feet. By then, Taylor was seizing the Firestone property as his base of operations. The managers skedaddled, leaving their employees to the mercy of Taylor’s army.

Eventually, though, the company had to accommodate themselves with Taylor in order to restore their asset. They paid the psychopath a hefty sum for protection in order to get the plantation back on line. Years later, when Taylor was on trial at The Hague for war crimes, he testified that the Firestone deal was one of his keys to power. To date no one from Firestone has been brought to trial.


The subject of Maxim Pozdorovkin and Tony Gerber’s “The Notorious Mr. Bout” (screens Nov. 17 at the Brattle Theatre) was not so lucky. The inspiration for Nicolas Cage’s character in “Lord of War,” Viktor Bout started as a small entrepreneur taking advantage of the post-Soviet Russian kleptocracy and grew into a major black market arms dealer until a DEA sting took him down in 2008.

Maybe it’s Bout’s goofball home movie footage seen in the film that makes him more sympathetic, but he does seem to be a scapegoat. Especially compared to those making profits as their business partner ISIL collects severed heads.

Pozdorovkin and Gerber will be present for a Q&A following the Brattle screening of “The Notorious Mr. Bout.” For more information go to www.brattlefilm.org

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com .