For nearly five decades, British journalist Robert Fisk has been sending out regular dispatches from the battlefield: first from the Troubles in Northern Ireland, then during the Carnation Revolution in Portugal and, starting in 1976, from Beirut, where he’s lived and worked ever since. As a correspondent for The Times for over two decades, and then for The Independent, where he still writes today, Fisk is venerated — and in some cases, despised — in both the U.K. and elsewhere for his reporting, which has covered every major Middle Eastern conflict since the mid-1970s.
In director Yung Chang’s documentary This Is Not a Movie, we follow Fisk on the ground in war-torn Syria and the walled-off settlements of Israel, as well as through snippets of archive footage covering the major events of his life. A no-nonsense, soft-spoken chronicler of conflict, especially from the point of view of the victims, Fisk is the centerpiece of a film that can sometimes feel more laudatory than necessary, but provides a comprehensive portrait of a man who has become essential reading.
“If you don’t go to the scene and sniff it out, you cannot get close to what the truth is,” Fisk remarks early on, revealing a modus operandi very much like that of a detective, searching for evidence at the scene of the crime. In Fisk’s case, those scenes have included Beirut in the ‘70s and ‘80s, where he was one of the first journalists to write about the Sabra and Shatilas massacres; Afghanistan during wars with both the Soviet Union and the United States, which led him to interview Osama bin Laden several times; Israel and the Palestinian territories, where he continues to cover the ongoing conflict; and Syria during the last decade, in what has become the deadliest war of our epoch.
A classic newsman who was inspired to become a reporter after seeing Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent as a teenager, Fisk wanders through war zones with a satchel on his shoulder and a notepad in his hand, gleaning information from eyewitnesses, soldiers and whoever else will talk to him. (“You’ve got to go after any source you can,” he explains.) He approaches his subjects both calmly and assuredly, using his bilingual skills and vast knowledge of the Middle East — his 2005 book, The Great War for Civilisation, is considered an indispensable modern history of the region — to try and get to the heart of the matter, especially when covering war, which he adamantly opposes and believes represents “the total failure of the human spirit.”
Fisk’s outspoken, fact-based reporting has not only won him fans, as evidenced in a clip from a televised quarrel he had with Alan Dershowitz the day after 9/11, in which the journalist dared to mention some of the geopolitical foundations of the attacks. More recently, he was lambasted for being embedded with the Syrian army when he claimed that chemical weapons may not have been used in certain bombings. Given his lifelong opposition to rulers and dictators — “What journalism is really about is to monitor power and the centers of power,” he wrote in The Great War — such criticism seems particularly off-base, and the documentary tries to show how Fisk was simply gathering the facts around Assad’s attacks before jumping to any conclusions.
When he’s not off covering Israel or combing the ruins of Aleppo, Fisk can be seen at home in Beirut, in an apartment cluttered with decades of archival documents and newspaper clippings. The journo proudly hails from a generation that still reads the printed newspaper every morning with his tea, and he was far from pleased when The Independent decided to go fully digital in 2016. A few scenes show him lightly sparring with younger reporters about the value of online reporting, which he seems to accept in some cases, if rather begrudgingly.
The Canada-born Chang, whose other documentaries include Up the Yangtze and The Fruit Hunters, covers a lot of ground here but never gets lost in the details, with editor Mike Munn culling all the footage in a streamlined fashion that makes each conflict clear to the viewer. A busy score dips into hagiography at times, accompanying scenes where we see Fisk walking through the wreckage like some kind of heroic character — probably the last thing he wants to be. Indeed, the film’s title underlines how much all that we see and hear about actually happened.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Production companies: Tinam Inc., Sutor Kolonko, The National Film Board of Canada
Director: Yung Chang
Screenwriters: Yung Chang, Nelofer Pazira
Producers: Anita Lee, Allyson Luchak, Nelofer Pazira, Ingmar Trost
Director of photography: Duraid Munajim
Editor: Mike Munn
Composers: Justin Small, Ohad Benchetrit
Sales: National Film Board of Canada
In English, Arabic