When Chinese-Canadian director Yung Chang (Up The Yangtse) was approached by producers Anita Lee and Allyson Luchak about making a film on renowned Independent journalist and Middle East expert, Robert Fisk, he didn’t hesitate to take the commission.
After the 9/11 attacks, he had read and admired Fisk’s work on website ZNet, where it appeared alongside writing from authors such as Edward Said and Noam Chomsky. However, before embarking on what was to become This Is Not A Movie (European premiere in IDFA’s Frontlight section), he went to Beirut to meet Fisk for the first time.
“I was slightly intimidated,” the director recalls. “I was thinking he might be this old dinosaur of journalism, curmudgeonly and difficult. It turned out he was quite the opposite.”
In person, Fisk was humble and with a charming British diffidence. He had a strong sense of humour – a quality which Chang believes has helped him survive being in some very dangerous corners over four decades as a foreign correspondent. He also had an unshakeable integrity. If he thought something was wrong, he could never be swayed.
“I thought OK, he was an interesting character but how do we make a film about him?”
The documentary begins in very striking fashion with footage of Fisk on the front line in Iran in 1980 and then, seamlessly, the camera pulls back to reveal him in Homs, Syria, just a few months ago.
The more time Chang spent with Fisk, the more impressed he was by Fisk’s memory and encyclopaedic knowledge. If they were walking down a street in Beirut, he would be able to tell endless stories about what had happened on it not just in his own lifetime “but all the way back to the Roman empire.” His discussion would leap between assassinations and wars.
“It struck me that this was how he perceived things – through this lens of history. I think he is like a historian-journalist.” Chang was determined his film would capture this same Fiskian quality and that it would leap between past and present. He had some strong archive material at his disposal both from a BBC documentary short in the early 70s when Fisk was a reporter in Troubles-torn Belfast and from a Channel 4 series called From Beirut To Bosnia, made in the 1990s.
Chang was also able to draw on Fisk’s huge hoard of audio tapes, recorded in war zones all over the world.
Not that Fisk had pleasant memories of the Channel 4 series. He had found the filmmakers following him to be intrusive and irritating. “He had a horrible time with the director. He made that very known to me.”
To placate Fisk, Chang set up ground rules. He agreed he would never film any scene twice. Unless he caught an event the moment it happened, he missed it. There were no second takes and no set-ups. The director talks of his “running gun” like approach. Chang had full editorial control. That said, Fisk wasn’t above vanity. He didn’t like being filmed in his pyjamas.
Although he is revered as one of the greatest journalists of his generation, Fisk, now in his mid 70s, also has his detractors. Some see his approach as old fashioned and out of touch. (He rarely uses the internet and has only recently embraced email.) Others have contested bitterly what he has written about everything from the Middle East to wars in the Balkans
However, the message of the movie is that his painstaking methods (the way he “sniffs” out his stories and insists on always bearing witness) still work. Younger audiences and reporters can still learn from the grizzled old correspondent. This is an old dog who still has some of the best tricks. Changs was awe struck at his diligence, his integrity and at his extraordinary storytelling ability.