360 Review: Bulletproof Salesman

“Our enemy is low quality…and low prices.”

Fidelis Cloer doesn’t sell cars, he sells “a good feeling.”  A self-proclaimed profiteer, the German businessman creates armored cars that don’t look like tanks, and he sells them to corporations, governments, dignitaries and powerful men who want to avoid being shot or blown up in their own war-torn countries.  Cloer gravitates to regions like Iraq and Afghanistan not because business is booming, but because those countries are; war is an inevitable boon to his trade.   Cloer is so matter-of-fact about his product that the documentary Bulletproof Salesman would feel like a very practiced sales seminar if it weren’t for some of the queasy footage interspersed between him and the filmmakers’ cleverly-presented statistics.

Prior to the war in Iraq, Cloer meets with potential customers in Baghdad; he sees that the area is problematic and the need for his product imminent.  As he makes a trek across country to his sales meeting, his convoy is searched by officials (they only find beer and canned foods, not his automatic weapons) and then followed and set up for possible ambush by attackers (“Ali Baba,” as they are called by the locals).  Cloer makes it clear that going into these countries, one must by turns look the way he is suppose to for his customers (clean fingernails, a suit and tie), while also blending in when driving through questionable territories.  Taking inconspicuous vehicles and using regional attire can avoid a suicide attack, he claims, yet we see that his vehicles are sturdy enough to withstand some incredible impacts.

Displays of safety testing on one of his vehicles in an undisclosed area of Germany, with undisclosed amounts of explosives (“I can’t say how much…it would be X percent the number of IEDs in Iraq.”) would be comical if they weren’t so jarring.  A final test with a massive explosion moves the car over a few feet, crumples one side panel, but still doesn’t destroy the vehicle.  Cloer’s talk with representatives sounds as common as any CEO discussing product safety and customer satisfaction.

Whether noting the variations within his own business (his custom vehicle for an African leader cost $350,000; his competitors offered a less-safe model for $85,000) or commenting on the importance of the correct weapon for a situation and the best news media outlet (he prefers CNN, which he watches daily), Cloer is clearly well-informed, up-to-date and never caught off-guard.

Co-directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker have found a terrific subject in their salesman, and created a fascinating and engaging study of war commerce and its by-products.  When he saw the impacts of IEDs in Iraq, Cloer sent a sales inquiry to an agency within the U.S. government.  “They said ‘we’ll give you a call,’ but I never heard back.”

Bulletproof Salesman is a terrific “small” documentary that made its world premiere at SXSW in 2008, and is only now finding its way to DVD.  It is more entertaining than a corporate presentation, and more gritty than most Hollywood treatments of those same conflicted regions.

(Bulletproof Salesman is currently available on DVD and Netflix’s “Watch Instantly” service, which can be viewed via an XBOX 360.)