This Is Not A Movie: Review. A retrospective on the life and career of journalist extraordinaire Robert Fisk. By Ray Lobo.
Early in This is Not a Movie Robert Fisk’s Syrian army escorts inform him that they are driving through a road in Idlib province dotted with rebel Al-Nusra Front snipers. Death can be as swift and final as a well-timed bullet through a car window. Fisk casually looks at the passing scenery and continues writing on his notepad. For Fisk, fear is an old pen that ran out of ink a long time ago and was mindlessly discarded; it is of no use. On first appearance, one may be tempted to classify Fisk as yet another cynical war correspondent who has seen endless atrocities and has been made numb by them; however, that classification does not apply to Fisk.
Canadian director Yung Chang brilliantly captures Fisk’s many layers. We see Fisk’s compassion when interviewing civilians caught in war’s crossfire, we can feel Fisk’s passion for the Middle East and his profession, and we catch a glimpse of Fisk’s anger over complacent leaders that allow human tragedies to recur. If journalistic Truth is Fisk’s goal, it would be disingenuous of him to report on a war, or any human tragedy, in a tone of just-the-facts neutrality. If holistic Truth — which obviously includes empirical facts — is the goal, Fisk attempts to attain it by including moral and emotional shadings in his writing. As he puts it, “I am on the side of those who suffer. I am a nerve ending and not a machine.”
Courage is a prerequisite for any war correspondent. In Fisk’s case, it is not limited to his unflinching attitude in getting a story even if it requires braving Al-Nusra sniper bullets. Chang covers the full narrative arc of Fisk’s career starting in Belfast, where Fisk reported for The London Times at the peak of The Troubles. Fisk’s reports often ran contrary to the official spin disseminated by British political and military authorities. When Rupert Murdoch bought The Times Fisk gained firsthand experience of corporate meddling in editorial decisions. Murdoch refused to run a column by Fisk which pointed to the deliberate shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane by a US cruiser missile. Fisk decided he was not going to risk his life reporting from the front lines of conflict zones for a paper that did not have the courage to print columns that offended the sensibilities of US officials and their allies. He left The Times for The Independent — a paper founded against the Murdochs of the world.
When your reporting takes you to Belfast, to the Iraqi front lines in the war against Iran, to the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, to Bosnia, to Syria; you gain a lot of sources, friends, and readers of your columns. You also gain a lot of enemies — these are after all high stake conflict zones . Fisk has been accused of everything — being too pro-Muslim, being too pro-West, being too pro-Palestinian, being too pro-Israeli, being too pro-Assad, being too pro-Syrian rebel forces.
Chang’s documentary does not shy away from moments in Fisk’s career in which he faced severe criticism for what he deemed to be the truth. Fisk controversially reported that while there was evidence that in several instances Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, there was no evidence that Assad used sarin in the city of Douma. A fact-finding mission led by The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) issued a report that chlorine gas was in fact used in Douma by Assad’s forces. Did Fisk get this story wrong? Did his sources lead him astray? Were there lapses in his reporting of the Douma incident? We will never entirely know the answer. Chang, to his credit, raises these doubts. Chang is not afraid to show that fallibility is always an occupational hazard in journalism.
Chang gets Fisk to admit on camera that it was his viewing as a boy of the Alfred Hitchcock movie Foreign Correspondent that glamorized and made him fall in love with the idea of one day becoming a war correspondent. The child that was seduced by movie glamor transformed into the adult driven to truth gathering in grimy war zones. It is this adult Fisk that is driven to report to Western audiences the unfiltered voices of the Middle East, voices too long warped by colonialist fantasies and Western arrogance — this is perhaps why he decided to live in Beirut and not London. One of the most poignant moments in the documentary comes when a soldier asks Fisk if he has ever suffered from PTSD. Fisk answers he has never had a nightmare save for one. He had his only nightmare after having to climb over dead bodies in the aftermath of the butchery in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Indeed, there is no glamor in being a war correspondent, as the documentary’s title indicates, this is not a movie.
Robert Fisk died in October of 2020. The world lost a journalism giant. The release of Chang’s documentary faced difficulties in its worldwide release because of the Covid outbreak in early 2020. Few saw This is Not a Movie. The question may be asked: who would want to seek out a documentary that deals with war and carnage when so many are struggling physically and psychologically with the Covid pandemic? It is a fair question; however, a question still deserving of a response. This is Not a Movie is worth seeking out because there are overlaps between wars and pandemics — falsification of truth, the suffering of the most vulnerable, etc. One must not forget that Camus’ The Plague was an allegory for the French resistance during Nazi occupation. Just like Camus wrestles with existential themes in The Plague, war coverage made Fisk ponder existential ideas: “You will always find ashes in history…. Something inside us permits this [war]…. War is a total failure of the human spirit…. We do not get the bad guys at the end…. What we [war correspondents] write may make no difference.”
Doctors trying to treat Covid patients while more line up outside the hospital, and war correspondents covering a war while knowing full well that there is another war waiting in the wings, are engaged in deflating endeavors. Camus and Fisk were both aware of their heavy burdens and the need to continue pushing their boulders. We are continually tested to do the same.
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