22nd THESSALONIKI DOCUMENTARY FESTIVAL [19-28/5/2020]
Open discussion with the renowned correspondent Robert Fisk and the director Yung Chang
The first live discussion, of the online 22nd Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, in which the renowned British war correspondent Robert Fisk and Yung Chang, the director of the documentary This Is Not A Movie, participated in, was held with great success on the night of Thursday 21 May, on the Festival’s YouTube channel.
The documentary which is part of this year’s programme, observes Robert Fisk at work — only a breath away, as he passionately throws himself in his persistent and painful hunt for the truth.
Gelly Mademli, the moderator of the discussion, was the first to speak, and warmly welcomed the two guest speakers, whilst giving the floor to the General Director of the Festival, Elise Jalladeau. After warmly thanking the two guests of the Festival, Ms. Jalladeau stood by the valuable legacy of Robert Fisk’s professional career, which represents the traditional values, of journalistic research, which gain even more importance, in today’s era of fake news and misinformation. Furthermore, she did not fail to thank Yung Chang, for his participation in the project “Species of Spaces”, that the Festival organised, during the quarantine, reminding the audience members watching the discussion, that the short film of the Canadian filmmaker, is available online at the Festival’s YouTube channel.
Speaking at first about how the initial spark that lead to the creation of This Is Not A Movie, came about, Yung Chang mentioned how he had been following the writing, of Robert Fisk, from the time he was still a student at university. “Fisk’s illuminating post September 11th writing became especially helpful to me, in navigating a lot of confusion I had, around the Middle East and what was happening in a region I did not understand. Recently, in 2016, I had been sent to document the US election, wherein Donald Trump won the presidential race, and I was very thrown off by that, because it wasn’t what I had been expecting, having been following mainstream media and information that wasn’t aligned with what was actually happening. And through that experience, I realised, I wanted to make a project about Robert Fisk —who does not stand on the obvious, but seeks the unseen truth” he concluded. In fact he confessed to the audience of the Festival that he was quite scared, in view of his first meeting with Robert Fisk, believing that he would see a man who was imposing and intimidating. “When I visited him in Beirut, he was quite the opposite of what I had anticipated. He was charming, witty and very welcoming and open” he confessed.
Describing, his first acquaintance with Yung Chang, Robert Fisk said he was immediately impressed by two things. “First of all, he did not have the usual arrogance and style that most directors have, and secondly he didn’t behave like most westerners who arrive in the middle east and want to tell the people there what is going on, just because they have read a few newspaper clippings and a book or two, and he or she think that they can tell the local people, what is really happening —and Yung didn’t do that. Everybody I introduced him to, he [Yung] sat and listened to what they had to say. It’s what reporters should do”, commented Robert Fisk, praising the attitude of the Canadian filmmaker.
Immediately afterwards, in answer to a question on how the collaboration between them went, the two speakers emphasised the mutual respect, they shared for each other’s work, whilst simultaneously underlining the importance of establishing boundaries and rules in such a demanding and difficult project. Robert Fisk, noted that he had made it clear right from the outset, that in order to have a sense of authenticity in the film, he would have to be able to move freely and unhindered — without being bound by the presence of the camera. “And I said to Yung, and he immediately understood, if you’re not there, if your camera is not ready, I’m just going to carry on. I’m not going to suddenly stop and say look, we’re going to do this interview again because the camera wasn’t recording”, he explained. Likewise, the director pointed out that Robert Fisk, did not intervene, at any time, in his creative process, providing the director with complete freedom, in the management of the filmed material. “The camera followed Robert in everything he did, we had a great scene that we had to cut from the film, which was essentially a car chase —a story in Beirut that Robert was following, but unfortunately this deleted scene; in terms of the tone of the film and the entirety of the movie, it felt out of place —in a way because you know, doing massacres in a war, the tone of that sequence didn’t feel quite right”, Yung Chang said, adding that an excerpt from the car chase is available on the website of The Independent newspaper, where a five part series has been published, with “behind the scenes” of This Is Not a Movie.
Going forward, the two speakers analysed the methods by which they approach their subject and try to bring the truth to the forefront, through their work. “In my opinion, you can’t report the Middle East, unless you have a sense of compassion and tragedy and anger —anger at the people, because there are people that are causing this; It’s not a natural carnage that’s doing this. I do have a sense of humour which is rather wicked at times, and it is intended to be so, as it sometimes disarms the people, and it is intended to disarm the people I am talking to, that can often be misunderstood. It was very good that Yung was sailing, on the same ship with me, and not sort of looking over the side”, Robert Frisk expressed. At the same time, he underlined a key difference in the behavior of the people in the Middle East, in comparison to those of the West. "People want to talk to journalists. Even in hospitals if their son is dying next to them, they’ll want you to try and talk to them. They want their story to be told. In some way, I feel they think things will get better, that they will obtain justice by doing this —I don’t think they do”, he concluded.
For his part, Yung Chang, stressed that the camera is a powerful tool, which —just like in journalism, must adhere to certain rules of ethics, and constantly observe what is happening within its range. “I think it helps to encourage openness, because you are not there to impose a point of view, constantly, you are not berating your subject, you are allowing your subject to do what they have to do, and so I think that that is a technical approach. My own feeling about it is, that when you are getting to know a documentary subject, such as Robert —if you could call him a subject, I think it is essential in spending time with the person you want to make the film about, and to do your research and to come in prepared —to be as open to the process as possible. I think part of it is preparation, but the second part is going with the twist and turns of reality. And so that is essential, when you are following a journalist”, the film director stated in characteristic fashion.
Afterwards, the two guest speakers of the Festival, answered a question about whether they feel like storytellers, despite the fact that they are looking for the truth. “I’m not a journalist, I didn’t study journalism, so I approach things from the cinematic point of view, and so I do believe that it is narrative. It’s storytelling, a documentary is, I kind of hesitate, I don’t even like the word documentarian, because I don’t understand that word. It sound’s, like, I'm not a librarian, I’m not a documentarian, I think, you know, I’m a filmmaker so I’m a storyteller”, Yung Chang explained. Then, Robert Fisk, who after clarifying that the truth, he is chasing as a journalist and correspondent, is hidden in people’s stories, revealed the foundations of his approach. "What I try to do, is no to dress it up in agency type, “late last night, so-and-so said”, you know… I try to inject into my writing my own feelings —which I think a journalist who lives abroad and is a foreign correspondent, is entitled to do. We are the nerve-ending of the newspaper; we are not there to re-write what the agency said was happening! I think that at the end of the day, especially now, it’s essential that foreign correspondents, cannot only and must only, not just get out on the grounds and see it with their own eyes, but [they must] be able to put into, that work, their own feelings of anger, surprise, even humour”, he characteristically mentioned.
In response to an audience question as to whether there have been any journalistic stories which he wanted to cover, but never managed to, Robert Fisk referenced his persistent attempts to meet and discuss with Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who undertake, military operations outside Iranian territory. “I even got messages across to him through people he knew in Iraq and at a point when I thought, I might just get his permission —no western journalist has ever interviewed him; he got murdered by a drone strike; a missile strike by the United States”, the experienced correspondent confided to the audience of the Festival.
Immediately afterwards, the discussion focused on the scourge of our era, fake news, a term that is now on the tip of everyone’s tongues. Robert Fisk, clarified that the term may be recent, but the practice is anything but new. “In my view, many newspapers, have been writing false news for many decades. In my personal view, the American press coverage of the Middle East —which is always, almost invariably, eschewed towards the Israelis and against the Arabs, has been falsified. So, I mean, I think there are many serious failures in professional “journalism”, for many decades, now. Especially in the Middle East when it applies, I watched journalists, in Northern Ireland —in Belfast, when I began; writing the most outrageous things, because they are associating with Catholics, the IRA or killing British soldiers and British soldiers could do no wrong, and so on and so forth. So, this idea of a falsity, in what you read, is a very old one, it’s just that we did not use to call it, fake news. We use to call it biased or prejudiced or made-up or whatever…” he further clarified.
Giving his perspective as a filmmaker, on the same subject matter, Yung Chang, recalled a definition given to the craft of the documentary, by the British pioneer, John Grierson. “[If documentary] is the interpretation of reality, for me, that’s a manageable way to think —that as a film director, when you encounter documentary filmmaking, every situation becomes a moral and ethical question; because with the camera you can affect a lot of things. I take a subjective point of view and I have, everything that is behind me, to go into where I point and direct my camera and my editing —because every decision is subjective. We are reporting through us, you know. In a similar way the idea of storytelling, being emotional, I think that’s the effect of what a documentary can do, is to interpret reality, emotionally —and it brings us into the lives of people who others, may not have access to. And I think, in that way, I’m connected to Robert. I think of the work of Robert and foreign correspondents, as being conveyors of truth. I felt that this film is about, showing us Robert’s truth”, he exclaimed.
The two speakers then responded as to whether, they had ever found themselves, in the awkward position of self-censoring, the content of their work, fearing the consequences that might ensue. Without hesitation, Robert Fisk, characterised self-censorship as the highest form of insult to a journalist’s mission and duty. “I’ve never self-censored, because once you self-censor, you should get an airline ticket preferably business class and fly home and never come back, because it's not worth the risk of your life. To censor yourself —that is the biggest insult you can do to your career and your profession. Once you start doing that, you’re riding a horse that’s going to go downhill for the rest of your life. So, you have to fight every battle… Even if sometimes your editor says “I find this pretty hard to take in, I’m sure you’re right but the readers…” and I say look, you know, I’m here to tell you what I think. And that's it… I never bully editors, I couldn’t do that. But I don’t let, editors, any time in my career, bully me —because once you do that, you’ll start writing and “Oh I won’t say that, this time”, he declared decisively. At the same time, he added that all too often the language and choice of words, used to describe a situation, may conceal a fraudulent falsification of reality, such as the choice of term "security fence” — for the wall erected, by the state of Israel, on the West Bank. Yung Chang for his part, said that the power contained within the image, as a concept, automatically creates a high sense of responsibility in the filmmaker —which automatically catalyses any suspicion or thought of self-censorship.
A subject that was brought up several times and numerous variations during the discussion, was related to the existence of boundaries and red lines in terms of depicting horror, human suffering and death; as much in the art of the documentary as in journalistic research. According to Robert Fisk, there is a tendency of “protection” of the Western public, from images of horror and destruction, which are unfamiliar and foreign to them. “We are hiding the reality of death from ourselves, as well as letting someone else hide it from us. People keep thinking or suggesting to me, in conversation, that war is about victory or defeat —it’s not. It’s primarily about death, which is the total defeat of the human spirit, and at some point, we need to show this to the people. And I often ask myself, how much of death can you show people, before they realise —they really shouldn’t go to war! It's a bad idea! But if you actually look at the terrible faces of the dead that I see [that are not shown], you would never want to put it on television. And therefore, it doesn’t go there. And therefore, no amount of words will make up for the image, which is not there but should be there. At the same time, too much death on film, becomes pornographic —which is one reason why you have to be careful. But there would be less wars if there were more images, you know, horrific images, given and put within a context”, Robert Fisk exclaimed.
Yung Chang, speaking on the same subject, clarified that there are no clear rules that he follows with regard to the depicting of unpleasant situations, in his movies — as each case and circumstance is different. “I mean, I don’t think there is an overall statement, an overall rule, that defines the question of, if there is an ethical or artistic limit, where you know that you have to turn your camera off. I think it really depends on the situation. Physically if I was in a situation and there was danger, there was something that was going to happen, either to my crew or to someone, that could be preventable, I would consider doing something there. But I would approach it just instinctually. I haven’t built a hard rule, when I’m in a situation where I have to turn the camera off. I think, I usually do it, if I feel like the subject I'm filming does not want to be filmed —and it's not someone, who is of some authority position. In filmmaking and certainly in documentary filmmaking, we always talk about how in terms of dramatic story telling, it’s much more dramatic not to show the person breaking down. It’s better to take it, to the moment right before that”, he said characteristically. Meanwhile, he referenced the documentary Dying at Grace (2003) by his fellow countryman, Allan King, which is about, people suffering from incurable diseases and are on the verge of death —even filming, in the final sequence of the film, the last breath of a character-patient. At that point, Robert Fisk pointed out the difference, he detects, between death from natural causes and diseases and the depiction of death as a result of war. “I think death is a very natural thing. I think it’s sad but it’s not tragic. I mean I think its excellent cameras are going inside hospital wards, that they are showing a reality of death, but where my objection comes to; is where you have a person who is overwhelmed with sorrow and grief, at the loss of someone they love —and they breakdown. And they start to cry. And I’ve noticed more and more, that the camera insists in staying with them. That is a moment, I think, where enough is enough. Leave the person alone. You know you are not going to learn more, by keeping the camera on them”, Robert Fisk concluded.
Closing the discussion, and after Robert Fisk made ominous predictions with regard to the war in Syria and the possibility of finding a peaceful solution, in the near future, the two speakers gave their invaluable advice to whomever wishes to follow a difficult path, similar to their own. “If you want to be a journalist, it has got to be the only thing, you want to do. It is a bug. It’s either there or it’s not. It’s got to be the only thing you want to do. You’ve got to work for someone who will honour your work. Go out to the story; see if it actually is, go there, talk to the actual people involved and write a story. Don’t do it from other people’s reports —a clipping in a newspaper”, Robert Fisk called out. On his end, Yung Chang, after praising the importance of montage in the art of the documentary, and his collaborator Mike Munn, on whom they worked feverishly for a whole year, on the edit of the film; underlined the importance of stimuli and knowledge, in the work of a filmmaker. “To fill your brain with: as much as you can and a perspective on things, a voice —that’s very important as a filmmaker. You want to create your own voice. It’s crucial —whether it be the first or second film, it doesn’t really matter, but there’s got to be one film you just dive into, and nothing will waver you from completing that project. So much of it is passion and there is not much money involved, when you are driven by passion”, the Canadian director concluded in a humorous fashion, ending the discussion that kept the audience, watching it captivated, attracting fervent comments and the warmest of impressions.