BOB GARFIELD: Welcome back to On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Last week the feature film Black Hawk Down opened to a sellout crowd in Mogadishu, Somalia in the very neighborhood where the events dramatized in the movie took place. The story concerns a 1993 battle that left 18 Americans and hundreds of Somalis dead. The film premiere occurred as tensions mount again between the two nations since Somalia is seen as a potential haven for Al Qaeda terrorists. New York Times reporter Donald McNeil was there as 200 people crammed into a tiny theater to watch a pirated video disk. Speaking to us by satellite phone from a Mogadishu roof, McNeil described the audience reaction.
DONALD McNEIL: The Somalis were cheering when the American soldiers were shot and cheering when, when the helicopters went down.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now the battle in the film is seen by us as the tragic consequence of what was intended to be a mission of mercy by the U.S. military! How is that understood or misunderstood by the Somalis?
DONALD McNEIL: The average Somali is completely baffled by why it happened. I mean why did Americans come here on a mission of mercy and end up killing what they believe is not just hundreds but more than a thousand Somalis, a lot of them civilians. I mean you don't see that in the movie, but many, many people were killed as, you know, large caliber shells crashed through their tiny cinder block houses here. Lots of children were killed. Lots of women were killed. It wasn't all this kind of pinpoint shooting by the Rangers that made the movie to me look like a, a, a shooting video game.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You report that when a group of young men saw you were a reporter they hid their faces from you. Why?
DONALD McNEIL:Well they, they pulled their shirts over their faces every - every time I looked at them or every time my photographer pointed his camera in their direction. I, I had a security guard next to me. Basically you travel everywhere in Mogadishu with about 12 gunmen unfortunately because it's the only safe way to go, especially at night. And he said they're afraid to be seen by Americans, because the last time Americans came, first the journalists came; then the soldiers came, and then they began to bomb us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think the film is likely to fuel or allay some of those suspicions?
DONALD McNEIL:I think it's going to make it much worse. I mean the film is told entirely from the side of, of these, these fabulous American heroes--shooting their way through, you know, a continent of savages, or a city full of savages. I mean it - and everybody's called "skinnies," which is the equivalent of calling them "dinks" or "slopes" -- it, it's quite ugly in its portrayal of the Somalis. The sound was very bad where I was, so - but I gather there's a line in the movie that essentially says if one American gets killed, we'll kill them all or something like that, and-- the Somalis reacted extremely badly to that one because they think it's the attitude of the Americans towards Third World people that - you know - a thousand of their lives is worth one of ours.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You spoke to one Somali warlord, Osman Ali Atto [sp?] who was involved in the battle, and he apparently has threatened to sue the producers of the movie because he didn't give them permission to portray him. Is that true?
DONALD McNEIL: Yes. He, he did exactly that. He wasn't involved in the battle. He was made prisoner on September 21st, a couple of weeks before the battle. He hadn't seen the film when I talked to him. But he had heard from a friend in London who had seen the film and had said that he was portrayed in an unflattering way; and he said maybe I will sue the producers. Now some of this is, is bluster, which is not uncommon from warlords, but--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He is unlikely to succeed I imagine.
DONALD McNEIL:Well he's going to have a tough time in an American court. He's going to have a tough time getting into an American court, but-- it, it does show how angry and upset and how little understanding there is in the Third World of the American - there's - you can just come and - you know - portray some Somali without asking his permission and portray him unflatteringly and think that he's never going to notice and, and you can just laugh at him if he, if he's angry about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You know there have been some protests here about the gung ho I guess nature of the film and the portrayals of Somalis as - one critic said - "savage beasts shooting each other." You said that you think this film is only going to make things worse in terms of American/Somali relations. Do you think it could have a ripple effect on U.S. foreign relations around the globe, portraying the American military as-- as people who only really see themselves as fully human?
DONALD McNEIL: Well that's kind of a tradition of American movies, isn't it? I mean-- since I saw The Longest Day when I was 8 years old, I don't think I've seen an American movie that tried to portray the other side with a heck of a lot of humanity. I mean that's, that's a staple of American war movies to demonize the enemy and it looks like Hollywood has decided that Somalis are one group of people you can pick on who can't fight back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:New York Times reporter Donald McNeil spoke to us from his satellite phone in Mogadishu, Somalia. Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden wrote the book Black Hawk Down, and he's delighted with the movie version. He is one of the lucky ones. Reporters tend to move from crisis to crisis, only dimly aware that they're writing the first draft of history. Most stories, no matter how historic, only have one day on the news stand. If the public misses it, it's fish wrap.