Chiledoc Berlinale 2024

In the zone

JOURNALISM / How do the stories we hear and see come from the conflict zone to our pages and screens? Through the fall of IS, Journalist at War seeks to find out.

In 2021, UNESCO found that, over the past ten years across the world, a journalist had been killed every four days on average. Though many such events do occur outside the «traditional» conflict zone (i.e. cartel-related violence in Mexico; or former Filipino president Duterte’s unjust war on drugs), the actual war continues to rage across the planet with little sign of letting up. With that, it is only natural this particular theatre of conflict is responsible for most such journalistic casualties.

The outer realms of media

Of course, I don’t have to tell you this current moment sees a war of particular interest to those on the European continent as Russia perpetrates a full-scale invasion of its neighbouring Ukraine – now nearing its ninth month. However, as the mainstream Western media cycle spins itself into a tizzy, ever-framing it as an existential battle of good vs evil, where stakes are nothing short of existential despair on par with epics like Milton’s Paradise Lost, coverage of conflict and devastation across the Global South is increasingly pushed to the outer realms of public interest.

Of these conflicts, both sides of the Russo-Ukrainian/NATO proxy war hold significant blame for their perpetrations and surely in their perpetuations. There is the devastation of sovereign Iraq at the hands of the US-led coalition, as is the Russian-responsible meat grinding across Syria’s decade-long civil war. There is also the Saudi-sponsored war in Yemen, and the ongoing struggle of the Palestinians at the hands of their own aggressor, with lands annexed for nearly a century. It is within this space that Norway’s Movies on War Film Festival seeks to present a balanced look at such conflicts, acknowledging the importance and inherent interest of the cold war-classic, with the continued strife of the orient, where American and European weapons litter the deserts and towns of the Middle East, frequently falling into the hands of Daesh, Al Qaeda, , Taliban, and others.

Of these conflicts, both sides of the Russo-Ukrainian/NATO proxy war hold significant blame for their perpetrations and surely in their perpetuations.

During and after

In this way, Morten Offerdal and Vegard Lund Bergheim’s 2021 documentary Journalist at War plays a vital role at the festival and for audiences at large. An accessible documentary of 50+ minutes, Journalist at War looks at the final days of the Islamic State’s (IS) hold on vast territories in Iraq and Syria. The documentary splits itself into two distinct parts through conflict journalists Tor Arne Andreassen and Afshin Ismaeli. The first is a context of the horrors of war where images we’ve been all-too-used to in the post 9/11 world fill screens and blare from speakers – children wailing in terror, explosions and gunfire galore, and the seemingly constant bickering of makeshift armies, morality police, and chaotic holding centres. The second encompasses the meat of the film, where its focus on refugees and those caught in a limbo between the Middle East and Europe can tell (some of) their stories. Growing up as a refugee himself, Ismaeli is particularly empathetic towards their plight. He recalls the lack of journalistic interest in opportunity during his own experience. As an adult, he now dedicates his life to providing the vulnerable with voices; this is where Journalist at War is most effective.

For those detached from the ins and outs of IS, as well as its reliance on (Western/Northern European) foreign fighters, the personal stories of those held in detention camps begin to provide a coherent response (read: not answer) to the simple question: «Why?» Why did you come to Syria and IS-controlled territory? Why did you leave your life in Belgium or Denmark (for example) to come? Through various figures – men, women, and children – we acquire the foundations of reasoning. The crux of this… is very different for men than for women.

The men interviewed all seem to have a purpose or at least one they consider to be. They have reason to travel vast distances in its name. They can generally answer why they believe it necessary (with conservative responses not that far removed from a MAGA-loving Republican’s supposed interest in «traditional values»). The women, however, have far different stories. Heartbreaking in their sense of powerlessness, virtually all have no idea how or why they ended up there. There are women from Europe, the Caribbean, and other places around the world who «married into ISIS», most of them not knowing until it was too late. In one particularly harrowing sequence, we are introduced to a Trinidadian and Toboggan mother and child, separated in Syria and held in different camps through no fault of their own. Their only crime was marrying wrong; one day, they travel to Amsterdam for a holiday, and the next, they are in incarcerated diplomatic limbo in a faraway land.

Necessary stories

These are the stories necessary to continue being told across the world, and it is journalists inside conflict zones who do. Journalist at War is the story of those who risk lives for the truth (at least the extent of truth their mainstream media employers allow). Simple and straightforward in its construction and presentation, Journalist at War is nonetheless impactful, reminding us of neoliberalism’s role in the ever-constant devastation of the non-white world while simultaneously holding barriers to those desperately wishing to flee its clutches. We see how Andreassen and Ismaeli chase their stories, push their subjects, and ultimately provide respite for those simply looking for an ear and a heart to listen.


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Steve Rickinson
Steve Rickinson
Steve lives in Bucharest, Romania. He writes for some platforms and does some other things as well.

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