Rosalind Bain’s film about the work of the International Red Cross Committee in conflict resolution treads a final line between a detailed explanation of how negotiation can bring peace to a troubled world and the stories of those who do the tough work on the ground to create the right conditions for such deals. This is a film that concentrates on the human consequences of violence but does its best not to show the physical reality of conflict – which could overpower its central message of faith that talking works to end wars.
In the field
When covering any august international organisation, there is a danger of straying into talking heads and portentous statements. Bain manages to largely avoid this in The Negotiators – How to Make Peace. She achieves this by concentrating on the work of IRCC field officers – those at the sharp end who often, literally, risk their own lives to bring peace to the lives of others.
It is hard to tell precisely when the film was shot, but it seems to have been a few years in post-production, as the examples of peacemaking seem to pre-date the pandemic. For example, Valentin Inzko, the Austrian diplomat who served as High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2009 until 2021, is seen in one scene wearing a medical mask while playing an open-air game of chess in Sarajevo.
This may not matter. This short (less than an hour) documentary revolves around the crucial role the Red Cross played in running the logistics for the historic 2014 peace deal in Colombia between the armed group FARC and the government, which led to a Nobel Peace Prize for Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos in 2016 – the same year a public referendum on the deal narrowly failed to ratify it.
its central message of faith that talking works to end wars.
The director chooses Jordi Raich, a Spanish field officer for the Red Cross who has worked in conflict zones across the world – ranging from Equatorial Guinea to Sierra Leone, as one of her key characters. He was working in Colombia during the peace process with FARC and was charged with organising the logistics for meetings – held on neutral territory in Cuba.
An engaging and affable man, who concedes that he has spent his life living in some of the most dangerous countries in the world, Jordi has a bleak view of humanity, born of personal experience: «We humans have created a society where violence is a feature; it has been like that for millennia and will continue to be like that. Is that better or worse? I don’t know. It is a reality we have to cope with.»
As a ground of being, it is – as he says – realistic but offers little hope for the future. Nevertheless, he and the other key characters we meet here, including Inzko, keep going because they believe they can contribute something positive.
The key, Jordi and others tell us, is to create trust between parties – but also to operate on a very narrow path that allows little room for manoeuvre between groups that often have no understanding of each other.
A rare glimpse
Although the film concentrates on the work of these field officers, it also captures the impact of violence on the communities in which the IRCC operates. Jordi explains that 26,000 unidentified bodies are held in morgues nationwide in Colombia. We meet the parents of one 26-year-old man, who «disappeared» in 2017. His taxi was found abandoned with a dismembered and decapitated body in it. If it was their son, locals had taken the body away for burial by the time the parents arrived – alerted via a social media message. We also hear of the impact on a field officer in South Sudan on hearing of the death of a colleague who was working in Afghanistan. Lorena Enebral Perez, a physiotherapist, was shot dead by one of her patients at a clinic where she fitted prosthetic limbs.
Mostly the film revolves around how these negotiators approach their jobs and how they find ways to play the delicate game of chess (a repetitive visual motif in the film) required to bring people around a table and get an agreement to end violence.
Whether their work can bring lasting peace is doubtful; for Jordi, a lifetime spent in conflict zones concludes with a cancer diagnosis and five rounds of surgery – although that does not stop him from flying around the world between treatments.
Bain’s film offers a rarely seen glimpse into the world of those behind the headlines in conflict resolution.
The Negotiators – How to Make Peace screens out of competition at the 2023 FIFDH.