Monday, January 22, 2007

# Posted 8:18 AM by Patrick Belton  

COMMENTATORS have noticed a bit less of the cut and parry of partisan contest in my own writing of late. And it is true - since an unexpected and sad divorce about which I have just said as much as I care to say in public, followed closely by a number of family deaths, latterly my mother, I have felt inexplicably less taste for the venom and ad hominem of political debate. And at the same time, more for the path of the writer and diplomatic correspondent; and in this direction I have tried to take first steps, through first writing in the Middle East and South Asia, now with a sojourn in London to bang on with Arabic and Urdu, meanwhile completing my dissertation and bashing out a first book which now looks likely (and happily) to be coming out with Routledge. And, insha’Allah, come summer, head back to Afghanistan to test out a few mobile numbers I’ve been given, and try out my luck interviewing Karzai, Hekmatyar and a few of the Heart sewing circle alumnae.

(*In all this London, not least of which because it lies very close to Heathrow, will I think increasingly be for me home. Longtime readers will know I feel ties of birth, parentage and education linking me to three countries which I do not particularly care to choose between; to do so would be I think to impoverish myself, and unnecessarily. I'm simply content at the moment to consider myself happily part for now of the decent, whirling cosmopolitan place that is modern Britain, and the intermingling of internationality and Englishness which is Europe’s largest city. This coming stocked with its endowment of possible stories, ranging from British Muslims to the vistas on Afghanistan and Iraq from Whitehall and Chatham House, could be the envy of any nascent scribbler. For that, I'm keenly aware that my work here and elsewhere will be read by disparate audiences, of nation as well as ideology; I can only humbly promise readers to describe and comment upon the world as I best see it, to engage and respond to readers in a spirit of polite fair conversation; and to ask and hope they do the same.)

All this prologue to say I saw some movies this weekend.

Liking in my cinematic choices to get far away from the daily grind of writing, revising and blogging, of these two films, one was on Afghanistan, the second on Iraq. I’d like to review both, by way of commentary on war reporting. The first was Sean Langan’s Fighting the Taliban, which I was able to see at London’s eminently worthwhile Frontline Club. The second was Iraq in Fragments, by James Longley, which London readers can go to see at the ICA.

Sean Langan seems an eminently nice chap. One can only be overwhelmed by his productivity as well as unquestionable bravery in putting himself into harm’s way, with only his camera to record his interviews or extended journalistic suicide note. He is noted for his work in Fallujah and elsewhere. Fighting the Taleban was adroitly furnished with interspersed helpings of of humour and drama which made his documentary immensely watchable. I am glad to have seen it, and recommend others do as well. Yet still.

Yet still. His documentary left me with a niggling uncertainty about much foreign war reportage, with several preexisting grounds for unease seeming here for some reason more apparent. And I only comment indeed because Sean’s work is respectable, and because in a much more cadet capacity I’ve worked the same terrain, in a first trip to get my bearings, and will return in several months to do so again. And since my professional journalistic education constitutes 65p I’ve invested in a reporter’s notebook and the reader comments on this blog, I’m curious to take apart, in conflicts in which I have strongest interest, how grown-up journalists in practise go about their work.

Taking apart Sean’s documentary, and with apologies in advance for the criticism, I can really only call to mind one piece of reportage that constitutes news. It was to be fair a good ‘un: in a valley where an American soldier estimated there to be 1,000 Taleban and Hizb-e-Islami operatives, lying at or around the Afghan ground-zero spot where the wars following 9.11.2001 began, lay all of twenty Americans billeted by the Pentagon for holding them off. To give them their due, they seemed to be doing a decent job of it. Developed, this poses crucial questions about the allocation of overstretched American and British forces. But it is not developed. The rest of the film is simply sights and sounds of Afghanistan.

To distil the essence of the interviews, the following being repeated four or five times in the course of the documentary:

Interviewer: So, you control this region?
Taleban: Yes, we control this region.
Interviewer: And you practise Jihad?
Taleban: Yes, we practise Jihad.
Interviewer: And there are Arabs?
Taleban: Yes, there are Arabs.
Interviewer, mugging to the camera: Whew, better get out of here!

Multiply by five and you have the essence of the film. I’m not really entirely sure what we learn from the exercise. If Sean really did put his life in as much danger as he repeatedly in scene-setting told the camera, oughtn’t he have asked better questions? Why the Taleban operatives personally chose to become insurgents, how they were governing their tract, what their view of an Islamic state would be and how closely Taleban-governed Afghanistan realised it in their estimation, their strategy toward the tribal areas and that fascinating cauldron of Balochistan – these would be questions minimally worth risking your life to pose.

Also, there’s a Heisenberg’s law I’ve noticed in speaking with Palestinians, Israeli soldiers, and Pathans: namely, they tend to be roundabout as friendly with you as you are with them. By being wooden with his Pathans, Sean as much as guaranteed they would look formidable and menacing back (trust me, I’ve tried this at home.). He depicts himself looking at them warily and saying only ‘salaam alaykum’ and ‘dera manana’ without the locally accompanying gestures; ‘sahi’, which he used repeatedly in an apparent attempt at translating idiomatic Thames Estuary English ‘you all right?’, is not idiomatic Pashto or Urdu (‘thik’ would here be preferable).

It’s also I think useful here to call to mind the helpful observation I’d like, in honour of a friend and comrade, to call Adesnik’s law: just because you’ve given equal column or camera time to each of both or several parties, it doesn’t mean you’ve achieved impartiality. I’m not here saying in journalism one ought reserve moral judgement between western liberal democracy and the Taleban - but we’d learn a bloody lot from letting the Taleban natter on about their views and biographies, whereas giving Taleban and Coalition squaddies equal time while making a mug of question-time with the Taleban, and framing the entire exercise by how brave-scared the correspondent is, achieves sensationalism but not news.

And while we’re at it, another law that approaches some validity: in journalism, there are no penalties for reinforcing people’s prior views, without popping in new information to the mix, only the converse. We began by being reminded that terrorists were bad. Before the credits, we were repeated the same message, and reminded that thanks to the filmmaker’s derring-do, we now know they’re bad people who furthermore wear sunglasses and carry RPGs. Well, yes. Question-time with the filmmaker consisted mostly of other war correspondents patting each other on the back for having escaped danger, amidst comments such as ‘last time I saw you it was in Kabul’ and ‘well done escaping your kidnappers’; but if all you’ve succeeded in doing is documenting your own journey into a heart of darkness, is there really a point?

Second film: Iraq in Fragments (IMDB, Rotting Tomatoes). Much less to say, really, and this only because this one was breathtaking. Its production values were superb; in stunning contrast to the first film, the people depicted were allowed to tell their own story, the filmmaker’s voice never appearing. In long generous shots, the film followed in sequence a child from the Sunni triangle; what can best be described as a Sadrist mob which hovers in close proximity to Moqtada al-Sadr; and several members of a Kurdish family. Every point I’ve made in the preceding, is made here in converse: the people of present-day Iraq are here bloody well permitted to tell their own stories, or at least several of them. This is the journalistic lens not reflected back upon the audience as a mirror for their own prior views; but used to link as much as will ever happen British and American taxpayers with the cigarette-smoking middle-aged Baghdadis and a guileless eleven-year old, the Shi’i merchants hauled off under suspicions of selling liquor and their tormentors’ celebration of Ashura, and Kurds witnessing cheerfully rigged elections amid quieter family and career struggles (‘you want to vote here, the Kurd list’, the elections officer happily tells voters as she hands them their ballot paper). Go see this one; it atones for a host of Michael Moore’s sins against foreign affairs cinematography, and with less mugging for the camera and repetition of his own views, its maker comes off the braver and more forcefully eloquent for it.

That’s Oxblog at the movies for this week, folks. Popcorn waiting in the comments!
(11) opinions -- Add your opinion

We saw IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS last year as part of the Seattle Arab and Iranian Film Festival. A delightful flick. The scenes with the Sadr militia are bone-chilling, especially in the way the men use the language of freedom and democracy...right before ransacking a public market and hauling the liquor vendors into a safe house.
My dear boy and other budding journalists – the one rule you forgot is that there is inherently a fine line between sensationalism and news, especially when mollycoddled white men try to make sense of the Orient. Fighting the Taliban is highly celebrated and Channel 4-ised, a consummate brave journeyman piece, perfect in style and content for UK funders and broadcasters. Why introduce the flaw of intimate understandings, which would only transfer dignity from us to them?
porn and politics hey nice combination................
Ecco, and who said we didn't cater for our Italian demographic on OxBlog.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar? I thought we finally killed or captured him last year? Or am I way off?

Sorry to hear about your personal troubles, best of luck in the future and thanks for the movie recommendation.
patrick, if you liked iraq in fragments, go see james longley's Gaza strip, BRILLIANT!
Belton, yes, you are way off. The guy was just on TV recently.

Anon, Patrick said he was going to talk to him. Ergo not way off.

BishopMVP said he'd possibly kipped it. Ergo well off, but not Belton, despite tricky-sounding initial B.
Great Article.. Completely agree with the flow. Thanks for sharing. I am sure other too would benefit from it. Cheers…!!!
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