Like many readers of The New York Times, I often find myself resisting the urge to click away from Pulitzer Prize-winner Nick Kristof’s columns, which often feature unblinking reporting and commentary on social injustices taking place all over the globe. His direct accounts and his unflinching efforts to implicate his readers, to get them, us, more involved in stopping genocide or alleviating poverty are as difficult to read as they are necessary to the social and political world Kristof seeks to document. While I may not always agree with Kristof’s conclusions about the social forces involved in creating the conditions of poverty and war crimes, his voice is an important and distinct one amidst the red-blue punditocracy that has dominated recent political commentary. And yet, as the newspaper industry continues to lose significant sums of money, the kinds of expensive reports filed by Kristof requiring travel abroad, often into hostile and unsafe countries, have become increasingly difficult to sustain. Eric Daniel Metzgar’s Reporter (IMDB) primarily a documentary of one of Kristof’s trips into the Congo, provides not only a fascinating glimpse into Kristof’s reporting practices but also a subtle reflection on the state of journalism today and the potential implications of losing a well-funded newspaper industry. At the same time, the film offers a subtle meditation on what it means to be a witness and what role journalists can serve in reporting difficult stories.
I’ve been a fan of Metzgar’s ever since I saw his previous documentary, Life. Support. Music., the gently sentimental portrait of musician Jason Crigler’s recovery efforts after suffering a brain hemorrhage onstage at a concert, at last year’s Full Frame. Reporter opens with a broder reflection on the state of journalism today. Gail Collins underscores the urgency of covering difficult, often epressing stories. Samantha Power insightfully explains that most audiences inevitably avoid seeking out stories about genocide and poverty. And Kristof himself explains his own challenges in reaching readers who may not be indifferent to the suffering of others but may not know how to address it (the film’s web site has number of suggested actions). As Kristof notes, seeing these stories often makes us feel powerless to act, especially when we are confronted with statistics that tend to deindividualize the suffering and pain of others. These ethical problems have been explored further in the film’s blog, which features a number of philosophers and critics reflecting on the ethics of witnessing, or of acting (or not acting) to alleviate suffering, incluing recent blog posts by Peter Singer and Paul Slovic.
Given these challenges, Kristof has ha to come up with new methods to communicate the problems associated with extreme power inequalities, war, and violence. In the documentary, we see Kristof traveling to the Congo with two young Americans, a Chicago school teacher and a medical student, part of a contest that Kristof had run on his blog. Metzgar’s film uses the experience of the two fellow travelers well to communicate some of the pobelms facing the Congo today. The teacher takes a number of photographs, supplementing the film’s documentary project but also introducing some of the chalenges of what it means to film others, to use their experiences to tell these stories. The medical student worries that she will be violating the confidentiality agreement between doctor and patient when she crosses the line between observer and participant when she reaches out to help a 41-year old woman dying of infection and malnutrition. The woman, who had previously been a healthy, successful teacher, weighed less than 60 pounds when Kristof’s group met her, illustrating that the conditions in conflict zones are not natural or inevitable.
Also powerful: a segment in which Kristof interviews a Congolese warlord, General Nkunda, who greets his Ameican guests with an odd mix of benevolent charm, fervent Pentecostalism (he calls himself a “pastor”), and unsettling power. When Kristof and his company worry about returning to their hotels after dark, Nkunda is powerful enough to ensure their safe travels and to insist that they stay for a meal (which one character awkwardly acknowledges was the best-tasting meal they had during their entire trip). Kristof’s questions for Nkunda are typically subtle but allow him to get the story he needs to report on the warlord’s violent activities. By focusing primarily on these two scenes–and by implying to some extent their interconnectedness, Metzgar’s film becomes afilm version of one of Kristof’s columns: seeking to identify the individual story that will stand in for the experiences of others, conveying in simple, narrative terms, problems that need to be addressed.
Given the semi-biographical nature of the film and its focus on Kristof’s attempts to reduce violenece and poverty, it would be easy for Reporter to appear self-congratulatory, and I think there are one or two moments–possibly including the Nkunda scene–that could be read that way, but I think that Metzgar is also careful enough to reflect more broadly on the problem of witnessing and the specific challenges that journalists and columnists face in getting readers to care about these social problems and to knw how they can act to help solve them. I would have liked a more careful, historical exploration of the social forces that contributed to the violence depicted in the film, and in a few places, I also found myself wanting to think about other forms of agency beyond well-intentioned New York Times readers and writers: aren’t there other groups, other forms of agency, that might be better positioned to alleviate the forms of suffering depicted in Kristof’s columns and the movie itself. For example, are there legal or institutional forces that could be used to greater effect? What happens after we bear witness to these atrocities? How are the problems of genocide linked to economic inequalities? No matter what, Metzgar has provided a complex, moving portrait of an individual reporter, and in doing so, has opened up important questions about the tasks of the journalist and documentary filmmaker working on complex political topics. It is a powerful film, and the questions it raises need to be discussed by a wider audience.