“I quickly became aware that this was not a legitimate deal” – [Peter Bleach]
In December 1995, an arms package consisting of at least 2,500 AK-47 guns plunged from an aircraft over a district in West Bengal, India.
Why? Who was it meant for? Who sanctioned this audacious operation of such political gravitas?
Two decades later, the fascinating case of the Purulia arms drop is the subject of scrutiny in a new documentary-thriller by Danish director Andreas Koefoed. So what actually happened in Purilia, India on December 17, 1995?
In what is a myriad of information, the documentary ultimately ends with more questions than answers in which, the basic facts are as follows – A Russian plane with a Latvian crew and passengers that included British arms dealer Peter Bleach and Danish smuggler Kim Davy flew over West Bengal; dropped 2,500 AK-47 weapons and 1,500,000 rounds of ammunition over five villages in the Purulia district. The five Latvians and the Briton were arrested upon their plane being ordered to land in Bombay.
Dane Kim Davy slipped away in the darkness of night and although the Latvians served time – they were later released via intervention by Russian premier Vladimir Putin.
It is the former British soldier and Scarborough native Peter Bleach who paid the most severe price (handed a life sentence) for an alleged conspiracy the likes of which the ruling Indian government had never seen. Bleach would spend 8 horrendous years in a Kolkata jail – emerging from his ordeal in 2004 only as a direct result of pressure by the British government.
To reiterate, this astonishing documentary film reveals that the Danish weapons smuggler Kim Davy managed to evade arrest in 1995; slipping out of India (we learn) with the aid of a prominent MP by the name of Mr. J.K. Dutt. He resurfaced in Denmark and managed to rebuff numerous Indian attempts to extradite him in order to face serious Indian court charges.
To this day, the supreme motive of the incident is still not clear in which the notorious communist regime in Purilia is widely imagined as the catalyst. Bleach informs the audience: “my opinion of Niels at that time was that his cause was good but his solution was bad”.
Indeed it is still not clear whether the arms were meant for the Ananda Marga religious cult, as is the popular theory, or whether they were actually supposed to be routed to Kachin rebels in neighbouring Myanmar. Swathes of newsprint have since emerged trying to solve the puzzle, as have a handful of gripping television documentaries.
Danish filmmaker Andreas Koefoed’s cinematic documentary, running 94-minutes, will be a highlight at this year’s Raindance Festival. Koefoed’s The Arms Drop, presents a sensibly restrained account of what remains a weighty international political/espionage mystery.
Due to the sheer volume of detail and obvious sensitivity concerning the case, the documentary succeeds in wisely deploying a steady, sober and simple narrative: namely contrasting the two principal figures Bleach and Nielsen. The piece is essentially a lengthy interview with the British arms dealer, Peter Bleach, as well as crucial conversations with the multi-faceted Danish national Kim Davy, whose real name is Neils Christian Nielsen but now goes by the name “Neils Holck”.
You really couldn’t make this up….or could you?
Both men, as expected, plead their innocence – giving testimony to “higher forces” being at work. Bleach because he quickly informed British intelligence about being coerced by Nielsen to partake in this cryptic arms deal before it materialised (and alerted Indian agencies as soon as he was caught), and Nielsen because he claims that he is a victim of a high-level conspiracy in which the Indian government sought to overthrow the ruling Communist Left Front in West Bengal at the time.
Koefoed relies heavily on the tried and tested technique of dramatic reconstruction. The patching together of the deal, the arms drop itself, and its consequences are depicted through actors Paul McEwan and Andreas Fuhrer. Fuhrer’s portrayal of Nielsen undeniably leans toward “creepy government agent”. The spectacled Dane is wimpy in appearance and elusive, often shot staring eerily out of window panes. He is a man whose persona is bland and dreary – yet calculating, disturbing and threatening, “Well Peter, I need you on that plane”
These two men’s fates were linked when they met in Copenhagen over the purchase of weapons and an aircraft in mid-1995. The Arms Drop neglects several complicated details and ignores a more detailed scrutiny of many potential key characters and foregrounds a human interest story. The ordeal of Peter Bleach especially is intended to invite the audience’s sympathy whereas any sympathy for Niels Holck is purely due to his lack of peace since 1995.
A man threatened consistently with extradition cannot rest easy and the real Niels Holck is visibly shattered in this documentary after years of legal wrangling. To put it another way, and to quote from Paulo Coelho’s best seller The Alchemist – The Arms Drop appears to inadvertently pose the question; Is the fear of suffering worse than the suffering itself?
We as an audience see Peter Bleach suffer emotionally, mentally and physically en route to surviving his ordeal. He clearly still bears some emotional scars and breaks down more than once on camera. Niels Nielson however, is a man still constantly looking over his shoulder; his daily torture is psychological as opposed to Bleach’s previous physical torture and simply put, Nielson’s is the agony of “expecting trouble” and “waiting to suffer”.
Throughout the doc he is shown to be anxious about his idyllic family life being ripped apart. The question always plaguing his mind is “when”? In contrast, Koefoed’s documentary paints Mr. Bleach as a robust and resilient British man on mission to find the truth after being afforded the grace of a second chance at life. Perhaps the greatest irony of the events depicted in the documentary is the fact that as Nielsen uses every ounce of his ability to avoid the Indian authorities and the Purilia case; now a free man, Peter Bleach continues to plunge himself back into his nightmare insisting that he’s “owed an apology” and most importantly the truth.
Not many will dispute that Bleach is a man owed a significant number of answers if all he has said is totally factual. However, I believe the filmmakers should have sought to press this seasoned former British arms official if he categorically believes his own government was complicit in this suspicious arms drop and effectively hung him out to dry as ‘collateral damage’.
Furthermore, if Bleach seriously believed he was merely an ignorant pawn in an unprecedented and dangerous global chess match focused on dictating a specific region of Indian governance; why not walk away whilst he still can?
A scroll at the end of the documentary lists all the key government figures and agencies that declined participation, including the then UK foreign minister Jack Straw, the Indian embassy in Denmark and the Danish intelligence service.
Crucially, at the end of the film, Andreas Koefoed and Peter Bleach also meet Christer Brannerud, the Swedish Interpol investigator who filed what is possibly a conclusive but classified report on the case. The investigator appears on camera, but we as an audience are none the wiser after his interview. He admits that the case was “slowed down” because of its sensitive nature, and that “the secretive nature of the report” indicates that there are powerful interests at work, both then and now.
The Arms Drop has been shot in Denmark and the United Kingdom, since shooting in India was deemed to be next to impossible. Veteran Indian journalist Udayan Namboodiri contributed some insights and interviews, but they didn’t make it to the final cut. Speaking to a local media agency Koefoed said, “I did want to include the Indian side more, but it proved to be difficult”
He believes he still doesn’t have a clear explanation of the case and has gone on record to state, “If I could have proven something, the film would have had a greater impact,” he admitted. “I was pushing the Swedish police officer to give me details about the Interpol report, but he couldn’t since it is classified. The film would have looked the same, but the ending would have been different.”
The Arms Drop premiered at Raindance Sunday 27th September 2015.
A second screening will take place Wednesday 30th September 16:20 @ Vue Piccadilly.
To book tickets / find out more go to the Raindance website