«I begin to wonder why I went into journalism,» says Robert Fisk at the start of This Is Not A Movie , as he runs to the safety of his car after grenade blast near the Iran-Iraq border in 1980. The comment is a wry aside but especially apt, as this portrait of Fisk’s career from shapes up to be a thought-provoking meditation on the uses and limitations of war reporting, as much as it is a glowing tribute to the high-profile British investigative journalist and columnist himself. There is much footage as jolting as the opening, but rather than getting swamped by the sheer immensity of what Fisk has experienced over a decades-long career primarily covering the Middle East, the film adeptly draws out thematic threads about the meaning, or rather futility, of war, and our urge to tell its stories. Conversations with him in the comfort of his Beirut apartment are just as insightful on the nature of his work as what we see on the frontlines; after all, despite Fisk’s obvious bravery, he is not one for shallow bravado.
Contrary to the official line
Notepad in hand, roaming away from his fixer into alleyways, and chatting to locals, Fisk is the quintessential image of the old-school, on-the-ground reporter. If you don’t go to a scene and witness it with your own eyes, «sniff it». Now that so little journalism is fact-checked on the internet, this type is more important than ever — and less respected by profit-preoccupied media barons. The honouring of firsthand facts includes an imperative to always tell the truth, and the courage to monitor and challenge the centres of power, no matter how unpopular this makes you. It is an idealism that Fisk expresses with a certain matter-of-factness and lack of bluster; indeed, he has a track record of reporting contrary to the official line of western political power brokers to back it up.
Fisk is the quintessential image of the old-school, on-the-ground reporter.
He began his career reporting from Belfast in the ‘70s during the ethno-nationalist troubles for London’s The Times, realising in the course of investigating stories that the British Army did not have a monopoly on the truth — a discovery that immediately made him a controversial figure at home. His sympathies for the fury directed at the colonial world in the Middle East have also met with much derision from those of a different political alignment, but he insists it is the reporter’s role to explain the reality of people’s lives on the ground objectively but always on the side of those who suffer. «I’m a nerve ending, I’m not a machine,» he says of those lauding some myth of total neutrality, and of the need for a reporting underpinned not by emotion, but by essential humanity.
The primacy of truth
The primacy of truth includes the importance of calling things what they really are and avoiding what Fisk calls the «de-semanticisation» of war, by which words such as «clash» instead of «kill», and «settlement» instead of «colony» disguise power imbalances and responsibility. With the increased censorship of his work that began when Rubert Murdoch took over The Times, he moved to The Independent, insisting that if reporters risk their lives to tell the truth, editors must be brave enough to print it.
Reporting on the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon in 1982, in which he was literally stepping over the bodies of the some 1,700 Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites killed under Israel’s knowing eyes by their allies, gave Fisk a new confidence in reporting on war crimes, realising the essential need to keep the knowledge of genocides alive. Nor does he shy away from areas of reporting — the weapons trade, for one, and the path of arms from Bosnia to Islamist fighters via the Saudis, under the full knowledge of NATO — that carry the most danger because of the vast sums of money under threat.
This Is Not A Movie garners its title from Fisk’s first inspiration to become a reporter: seeing as a youngster Hitchcock’s spy thriller Foreign Correspondent, whose hardboiled protagonist is sent to cover World War II, getting the girl in the process. Fisk says he is angrier now in the job, as he has realised that in actual fact, good guys winning is a myth. Foreign correspondents don’t have much effect, and it is arrogant to assume otherwise. What is more, nobody wins in war, which is always a total failure of the human spirit. Walking through the near-total desolation of the emptied city of Abadan, the civilian population dropped close to zero, he says: «You could bring a Hollywood crew over and make a movie, only the dead can’t talk and the living are gone.» Gone to where? It is the roots of suffering in the Middle East, the geopolitical catalysts of things such as the refugee crisis and terrorist attacks in the west that Fisk seeks to illuminate.
And it is this purposeful bearing of witness that seems to keep him with committed energy to the job, despite his lack of rose-tinted glasses for its limitations. As he says: «You will never win, but you will lose unless you keep on fighting.»