As a boy in the London suburbs, Robert Fisk’s career aspirations were shaped by seeing Foreign Correspondent. In 1972, Fisk got the seemingly glamorous job that Joel McCrea had in the Alfred Hitchcock classic, and has been at it ever since. But reporting from overseas is messier in real life than in scripted drama, which is why Yung Chang’s engrossing portrait of the 74-year-old journalist is titled This Is Not a Movie.
Fisk began no further from home than Belfast, but in 1976 he arrived in Beirut, which became his permanent home base. He’s covered invasions, insurrections, and all kinds of catastrophes, always taking what he calls “the side of those who suffer.” This stance has engendered many conflicts with supporters of the region’s dominant powers, as well as with editors at several British newspapers. Fisk currently writes for the now online-only Independent.
The documentary’s title, which echoes that of Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film, suggests an attempt to deconstruct cinematic storytelling. But it’s Fisk who’s the iconoclast here, as Chang has crafted a conventional blend of new and archival footage, without any experimental narrative strategies. Unlike his earlier Up the Yangtze, which benefited from a narrower focus and compressed timeline, This Is Not a Movie isn’t especially shapely or propulsive.
The two things that give this documentary its power and provocativeness are intellectual rather than dramatic: Fisk’s work, and his ideas. Using digital minicams, Chang and his crew follow the journalist through Syria, Beirut, and the West Bank. There’s also a foray to Serbia and Bosnia, where Fisk tries to determine how European weapons were routed to the Syrian bloodbath, which he calls “the worst reported war in the Middle East.”
“If you don’t go to the scene,” Fisk says, “you can’t get near the truth of it.” And that’s the essence of his mission, which is as moral as it is historical: “So no one can say, ‘This didn’t happen.’ So no one can say, ‘We didn’t know. No one told us.’” Although he’s lived in Beirut most of his life, Fisk is no modern-day Lawrence of Arabia. In his unironed shirts and rumpled pants, he looks as if he’s dressed to putter in the garden at the Irish cottage he says he might have chosen as his retirement home. He admits to speaking only “a bit” of Arabic. (The film shows Fisk’s reliance on translators and guides but doesn’t explain where he gets them, as Chang is more interested in Fisk’s life and ideas than the practicalities of his work.)
Fisk’s focus on the victims of Middle Eastern power plays has made him some enemies. A defining moment in his career was the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatilas camps, carried out by Lebanese Christians but facilitated by Israeli forces. (It’s the only event that ever gave him nightmares, he says.) He travels with Amira Haas, an Israeli journalist he admires, to survey the West Bank areas sundered by Israel’s separation wall and to visit what Fink terms Israeli “colonies.” Inevitably, the reporter has been denounced as an anti-Semite, notably by Alan Dershowitz in a 2001 audio debate excerpted in the film.
That moment aside, Chang devotes little time to Fisk’s detractors. Notably, it doesn’t challenge his claim that there was no chemical attack on Douma, Syria, in 2018. Early reports may have been overstated, but few observers support Fisk’s account of the incident. Even a reporter who prides himself on getting as close to the story as possible can make a mistake. But Chang makes a strong case that Fisk’s approach is more reliable than that of journalists whose method privileges deflection and distortion. Indeed, what Fisk has to say about that should interest newspaper readers who never turn—or click—to the foreign coverage.
Noting that war is “not a football match,” Fisk rejects mainstream journalism’s standard operating procedure, which he describes as, “First you tell the truth. Then you get someone to deny it.” In the fourth year of Donald Trump’s presidency, Fisk’s rebuff of journalistic “balance” could hardly be more pertinent. Fisk may be out of sync with his profession, but Chang’s documentary adroitly demonstrates that the septuagenarian is still motivated as much by the boyish curiosity that drew him to journalism. Dismissing the idea of that cottage in Ireland, Fisk says, “I still want to know what happens next.”