Hot Docs 2020
This is Not a Movie is an Essential Film for the Era of Fake News
There are few professions more in question of their necessity in a digital age than being a reporter. Yet, according to war reporter Robert Fisk, there is a vitalness to his job. Especially when placed in the context of journalism and the world as a whole. As the subject of Yung Chang’s latest film, Fisk is an experienced and occasionally controversial figure for how he counters broad narratives. By doing so, he winds up providing a more nuanced look at the truth. A documentary whose subject is chock full of ideas from decades on the frontline, This is Not a Movie presents a timely look at journalism’s role during conflict in the age of the internet.
For over four decades, Robert Fisk has been at the forefront of reporting on major conflicts. His most notable work has been in the Middle East covering the Syrian War out of Beirut – where he has lived since 1976. Since 1989, he continues to provide coverage exclusively for The Independent. Due to there being an inability to cross the frontlines and report on the other side, Fisk’s work has come under fire for being highly subjective and “emotional”. This is Not a Movie attempts to place Fisk’s one-sided reporting in the context of a world filled with misinformation that can lead to worse consequences if not told truthfully and accurately.
One such example in the film is a chemical attack that Fisk covers in the immediate aftermath of an attack on Douma. The news in the West stated it was a chemical attack and utilized images of civilians covering their faces to avoid inhaling the gas. Meanwhile, Fisk – who was in Douma immediately afterwards – cannot confirm that it wasn’t just people covering their mouths from dust. When speaking to people who were there no one can say outright that it was a chemical attack. Fisk is placed on the other side of the populous, countering a narrative pushed by the news stations that could have ugly ramifications if taken more severely by governments. Emphasizing the blind spots that those living overseas can’t quite see from other perspectives, Fisk’s reporting on Douma strengthens the notion of having someone embedded in war-torn areas for a more truthful, detailed analysis.
This is Not a Movie is interesting for the ideas that Fisk puts forth throughout. A fascinating subject and one not afraid to speak his mind, the entire focus being on him as opposed to the war he’s engulfed himself in makes for an entertaining watch. However, there is an argument that Fisk himself posits which is whether both sides of a perspective need to be shown. Obviously, not being able to cross frontlines means Fisk has always told the story of the Syrian civil war from the only perspective he has seen it. It provides a nuanced and truthful report of what’s happening, but shows a strong bias. A severe lack of objectivity in the context of his reporting might not be the worst and is understandable. Yet, in the grand scheme of making a movie on Fisk, there isn’t really a frontline that can’t be crossed. Which makes it a shame that the film feels like a bit of a puff piece. Archive news footage of interviews with Fisk showing the opposing viewpoints isn’t enough when only one person is given the last word.
There is also an ongoing conversation about the worth of investigative journalism in a digital age. While not exactly a new topic, it is interesting to watch someone who has depended on physical evidence and newspapers to chronicle his time in Beirut, be thrust into an online-only publication. More interesting is to see how the impact of print versus digital reporting has changed. Important editorial requirements like fact-checking are seemingly thrown to the wayside for something that will garner more clicks. It makes a job like Fisk’s difficult to do when a much different narrative on events happening overseas can be pushed with ease (such as the attack in Douma). This makes a more nuanced approach to telling the story truthfully harder to sell to editors when it contrasts heavily against the mainstream.
Ultimately, the documentary is held together by the ideas presented by its subject. Robert Fisk is fascinating to listen to even despite how confrontational his ideas can be and how vocal he is about them. It perhaps leads into why the movie never really confronts him much instead opting for a celebration of his work instead of putting it under closer inspection. Regardless of whether viewers agree with Fisk, the exploration of the conflict in Syria through his perspective demonstrates the messy nature of life. This is Not a Movie highlights the gray areas in conflict that mainstream news outlets tend to paint with a distinctly black-and-white narrative, and employs Fisk to help bring a clearer picture that is both enriching and provocative.
Editor’s Note: Hot Docs was among the film festivals postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Goomba Stomp is reviewing select fest entries that elected to premiere digitally for critics.