Eugene Jarecki has directed two documentary films, “The Trials of Henry Kissinger” (2002, co-directed with Alex Gibney) and “Why We Fight” (which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005).
DOX: “You have directed both fiction and non-fiction films. Do you have a preference?”
EJ: They’re very different experiences and they reflect a different role for the artist in the society at large. We’re living in a time where truth – or at least the pursuit of truth that a documentary represents – is not only at times stranger and more interesting than fiction, but arguably more necessary. The world has a lot of fiction right now. We are deeply suffering from many of the prevailing fictions. So I’m less driven right now to increase the world’s supply of fiction and more driven to increase the world’s supply of non-fiction. That’s a very strong motivation. My choice is based on a sense that we are facing a number of significant emergencies that need people who have the ability, the means and the wherewithal to take the time to shine light on subjects of desperate concern. If those people can do that, they need to do it.
DOX: “So you believe that’s your responsibility as a filmmaker?”
EJ: Yes, and my responsibility came to me very specifically. I have a friend in New York who runs a restaurant. He talks politics while he prepares you very exotic soups. Early on when we were making “Why We Fight” he said, “I heard about that movie you’re making about the military industrial complex.” I said, “What do you think?” He said, “There’s a right way and a wrong way to make that movie. You seem to think that you’re part of some movement. I’m not going to argue with you about whether you are or you’re not but let’s say you are. In that movement, there are probably other people and everybody has a function. Your job is to be the guy with the flashlight and to shine it in dark corners. And the trouble is that because you’re a human being, you’re going to find things that are going to make you mad. And then you might get the big idea to use your flashlight like a stick to try and hit the forces that are making you mad. But those forces have always been built far out of your reach. That’s just the nature of it. And so you will flail your flashlight and the beam will never settle in any one spot long enough for anyone to perceive anything. So they will get nothing and you will fail.”
That advice haunted me in the editing of the film because it meant that I know the difference in a film, particularly a documentary that’s meant to be an ambush or a strike on something and something that is truly more reflective and more respectful of the nuance in any given situation. The absence of visible villains in “Why We Fight” is seen as one of the qualities of the film that most invite people to want to watch it. In many ways, that resistance to provide a simple villain derived from that advice to avoid using the flashlight to take a cheap shot.
DOX: “How were you able to gain access to such a wide range of people like Alexander Haig in The Trials of Henry Kissinger and Richard Perle in Why We Fight?”
EJ: Because the approach we take strikes the people as a departure from the usual simplified rant to which they’re accustomed to being subjected. And I make it very clear to them the kind of texture and complexity I’m trying to pursue. More often than not, just to get me off the phone, they agree to do an interview. It has to do with goodwill as a person. When I speak to people, they can say a lot of things but they will have a lot of trouble ignoring that I represent a longstanding tradition in America of tough love, deep-looking reflection, and a willingness to look at the country critically out of love. If they’re not ready for that approach, what are they working for? What are they fighting for? In a certain sense there’s almost a moral pressure in the approach I take that makes people drop their usual guard, which has been put there as an adaptation to the shrillness of contemporary discourse in Washington and on television.
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