This Is Not a Movie

 

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A man of whom we can be proud is given a well-earned but ramshackle film portrait.

 
This Is Not a Movie  

Robert Fisk

 

In 2012 Jacqui and David Morris made the documentary McCullin, a fine work about the admirable British photographer known especially for his images of war zones. That film concentrated on his work over many years but neatly incorporated biographical information and footage in which Don McCullin reflected on his beliefs and on the duties that went with his line of work. Now the Chinese-Canadian documentarist Yung Chang turns his attention to another outstanding Brit whose career has been linked to wars. In the case of Robert Fisk, however, he reports in words, not pictures, since he has spent most of the time since 1976 as a Middle East correspondent, making his mark at The Times until with the arrival there of Rupert Murdoch he soon switched to The Independent. Given Fisk's belief that a journalist must always be ready to challenge the centres of power and seek out the truth in every situation, he is a controversial figure to anyone who would put support for one's own country ahead of speaking out on behalf of those who are suffering unjustly regardless of their nationality or political views.

 

I find Fisk no less admirable than McCullin and am glad to have seen this film but unfortunately, in contrast to McCullin, This Is Not a Movie is not a well-made work even though Chang has built up a reputation as a documentary filmmaker of distinction. The opening sequence has a point to make by starting in Abadan in 1980 and then cutting directly to Homs in 2018 since the similarity in these images of destruction seen by Fisk not only emphasises the essential nature of war but supports his pessimistic belief that his lifetime's work has had little if any impact given that nothing seems to change. In wanting to continue his journalism regardless he is simply standing by his recognition that if you don't continue you lose and that what he does is at least testimony to the fact that war represents the total failure of the human spirit. But, this opening apart, Chang's film feels like a work assembled without any thought of how to structure it effectively. Thus it is that early on we get Fisk recalling his childhood and the inspiration to be a journalist seeded in him when he saw the Hitchcock film Foreign Correspondent but it is much, much later that we learn about Fisk's admiration for a stand taken by his father towards the end of the First World War although that is relevant to the way that his son's attitude to war developed. Between times the film gives us just a single sentence about Fisk being based in Beirut which tells us that he had by then married a journalist, but we learn nothing more of her (only afterwards did I discover that they divorced in 2006). We do hear of how Fisk's outlook has been influenced by the integrity of a journalist whom he admires, Amira Hass, but that only comes up near the close of the film.

 

If the personal life emerges in this haphazard way, no less is it the case that the many sequences about his reporting although individually striking dodge about all over the place, both geographically and time-wise (sometimes, as in the section about the West Bank, key older footage is incorporated with images of Fisk returning years later). After the introductory sequence recent material is seen of Fisk in Syria and we later return to that but, instead of this providing a framework, it is the scenes of the West Bank that dominate the final stages of the film. Earlier we are reminded of Fisk's presence at the Armenian genocide at Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon in 1982 and more recent footage linked to that is striking. But then we are off on a story which for a while seems to take over the film as Fisk travels around Bosnia tracking down evidence about the supply of weapons to be used in Syria. Later, after references to the attack on the Syrian city of Douma in 2018 supposedly involving chemical warfare and following brief references to Bin Laden, we suddenly find the film touching on 9/11 and on Fisk's critical stance over the stress on terror in the press at the expense of any serious questioning of what prompted the attack in the first place. 

 

There is indeed plenty of value to be found in This Is Not a Movie but, if you share my belief that a documentary fails aesthetically unless put together with a sense of flow and with effective shaping, then you won't feel that this can be considered quality work. But, despite its failings, a persuasive portrait of Robert Fisk does emerge.  Furthermore, however inept at times, the film does manage to express exactly what it is to which Fisk has devoted his career and that message is important enough to make this a truly worthwhile watch however imperfect the movie may be.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Robert Fisk, Amira Hass, Nirmeen Hazineh, Suleiman Khatib, Antony Loewenstein, Suheil Natour, Ifet Krnjic, Adis Ikanovic, Chaim Silberstein.

 

Dir Yung Chang, Pro Anita Lee, Allyson Luchak, Nelofer Pazira and Ingmar Trost, Sceenplay Yung Chang and Nelofer Pazira, Ph Duraid Munajim, Ed Mike Nunn, Music Ohad Benchetrit and Justin Small.

 

National Film Board of Canada/Sutor Kolonko/TINAH-Telefilm Canada.
109 mins. Canada/Germany. 2019. Rel: 15 June 2020. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. Cert. 15. 

This film is screening as part of the Canada Now film festival (see canadanow.co.uk).