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film review

Veteran British foreign correspondent Robert Fisk is the subject of a new documentary titled This Is Not a Movie.HotDocs

  • This Is Not a Movie
  • Directed by Yung Chang
  • Classification PG; 106 minutes

Rating:

3 out of 4 stars

When Robert Fisk was about 12 years old, he watched Albert Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, in which Joel McCrea plays an American reporter covering the outbreak of the Second World War, and it changed his life. “My God!” he thought. “Excitement! Adventure! Reporting! Scoops! Beautiful women! Spies! Sounds like the job for me!” It wasn’t long, though, before he realized the brutal reality of journalism, encapsulated in the title of director Yung Chang’s laudatory, engaging profile of him now available to stream for a fee through the Hot Docs Film Festival website: This is Not a Movie.

One of Fisk’s earliest postings was Belfast in the early 1970s, where he chronicled the horror of the IRA’s bombing campaign while also running afoul of the authorities for exposing the British Army’s killing of civilians. Ireland, it turned out, was a mere training ground for the bulk of his life’s work, reporting from his base in Beirut on the unimaginable cruelty of combatants in the Middle East – and, especially, its toll on innocents there.

This Is Not a Movie plays like Robert Fisk’s Greatest Hits, intercutting contemporary scenes with Kodachrome footage from his days as a correspondent with The Times of London, where he covered the Lebanese Civil War, the Iran-Iraq War, the Arab-Israeli conflict and other clashes. In the late 1980s, as Rupert Murdoch’s editorial influence on The Times continued to grow, Fisk quit that paper and joined The Independent, where he blends straight shoe-leather reporting – Yung’s camera captures tense scenes in wartorn Syria, as well as Fisk digging into tantalizing information about weapons-trafficking – with sometimes florid columns. Not all of the scenes dwell on explosive violence. In one demoralizing segment, Fisk accompanies a 60-year-old Palestinian, whose family home in East Jerusalem he had witnessed being bulldozed in 1990, on a stroll through the Israeli neighbourhood built upon the man’s seized land.

If Yung, who made the Genie Award-winning Up the Yangtze, comes off as too deferential toward Fisk, he does acknowledge the controversial nature of his subject, noting how Fisk is regularly proclaimed to be a pawn of the different sides of whatever conflict he is covering. And Fisk admits that his reporting is imperfect – necessarily so, given the danger that foreign correspondents now face.

“It would be nice to think that Foreign Correspondent, the movie, was the real thing,” Fisk explains at one point. “He manages to get the bad guys, the German spies, everything works out fine. But the truth is, this is not a movie. And it’s very arrogant of any journalist to think they can change the world, alter the course of a war.”

“Mostly, I fear, what we write doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference,” he adds. “You’ll never win. But you will lose unless you keep on fighting. And to prevent that, you must keep on reporting, going out, fighting for it, challenging authority.”

This Is Not a Movie is available digitally for rent at hotdocs.ca until May 29

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