A ribbon of simulated napalm bursts into flames, then turns to black smoke as an A-10 aircraft arcs over thousands of sun-baked heads at the 1997 Abbotsford International Airshow. The announcer-salesman brags that these weapons were, "used so effectively to attack enemy forces during the Gulf War," before he's drowned out by the electric guitar riffs of ZZ Top. It's destruction as entertainment.
It's also a scene from a new video documentary called Bombs Away: Airshow Canada, Globalisation and the New International Arms Trade, produced by peace activist Steve Staples. The documentary provides an inside look at the military marketing manoeuvre known as Airshow Canada. Since 1989, Airshow Canada has accompanied the displays of aeronautic prowess at the Abbotsford International Airshow. While the airshow itself has relatively innocuous beginnings as a project of the local flying club, today the combined effect of the two events has shifted Vancouver into a pivotal position in an increasingly export-based international arms industry. Despite the concerned efforts of local citizens and peace activists, the military aspect of the trade show has come to dominate the civilian component. In 1989 there were just thirty-seven weapons-based corporations at Airshow Canada. By 1995, their number had jumped to one hundred, comprising a third of all exhibitors. As co-ordinator of the advocacy group, End the Arms Race, Staples was aware of the escalating military presence at Airshow Canada. He was also aware that local activists had been resisting the militarization of the airshow for several years by mounting "The Fraser Valley Peace and Arts Festival" on the same August weekend. In 1996 Staples asked David Thiessen, an organizer of the peace festival, to give a presentation on the Airshow to the End the Arms Race annual general meeting. That meeting triggered a series of joint actions the following year and eventually resulted in the production of the Bombs Away documentary.
At just over 28 minutes, Bombs Away is a concise but thorough introduction to the key players and factors contributing to the militarization of the Asia-Pacific region. Although dense with facts, the pacing of the video is quick and the director's tactic of alternating talking head narration with footage of the air and trade shows helps to sustain viewer attention. The surreal atmosphere integral to any trade show is well illustrated by the inter-splicing of actual event footage with clips of promotional videos by the likes of Bristol-Meyers and Pratt-Whitney (complete with their own spooky voice-overs and words like "Political Unrest" and "Coups" writ large on the screen). A well-rounded picture of the local opposition emerges through a series of interview with academics and activists such as the Professor Michael Wallace, Jillian Skeet and Peter Coombes, Bruce Hebert and David Thiessen (who also co-directed), among others. Some of the better moments of the documentary, however, occur when figures such as Raymond Chan, Canadian Secretary of State to the Asia Pacific, is captured on screen reluctantly admitting to a million dollars in arms sales to Indonesia. While this particular confession is no longer news, having such statements by Chan and his military counterparts captured on screen and in context, increase the likelihood that Bombs Away will be used as an education tool. As Staples says, "The inside footage gives viewers a window into a world few people ever see, one that's the usual purview of large corporations and the military. It's the organized arms trade going on right here in B.C. but nobody even knows about it."
Bombs Away premiered in November at the arms trade forum of the People's Summit on APEC in Vancouver. You can order a copy of Bombs Away: Airshow Canada, Globalisation and the New International Arms Trade by calling End the Arms Race at 604-683-7228 . You can find out more information about the video and also view it via the Internet at the EAR site: <http://www.peace wire.org.bc.ca>.
Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1998, page 30. Some rights reserved.
Search for other articles by PMag staff here