‘Terrified’ in the Congo
January 13, 2009
Ever refused an African warlord’s dinner invitation?
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof once tried to. The meal, however, was already cooked and the journalist accepted the offer.
The episode is one of many Kristof recounts in "Reporter," an HBO Documentary Film screening at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie portrays life in war-riddled Central Africa and the challenges correspondents face as belt tightening at newspapers greatly reduces the number of foreign news bureaus.
"As journalism of all kinds becomes more desperate to make money, then there is a tendency to focus more on celebrity," Kristof said in a telephone interview from his home in the New York City area. "I just don’t know what’s going to happen to journalism, what our business model is going to be. I tend to think that one way or another, news and information will still have value."
Kristof, whose foreign coverage earned him two Pulitzer Prizes, says he must work harder to tell the most desperate stories from the most miserable places on Earth. To the point filmmaker Eric Daniel Metzgar said he became suspicious of how the columnist approached subject matter in Congo.
"I don’t know if I see the world the way [Kristof] does," Metzgar said in a telephone interview Monday, about the reporter’s detached approach.
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Teacher Will Okun and medical student Leana Wen accompanied Kristof on a reporting trip to the war zone after winning the Win a Trip with Nick Kristof essay contest in 2007.
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Okun said he still hasn’t seen "Reporter," which documents the trip.
"I’m going to wait until the big day," Okun said about its premiere this week at Sundance.
He went to Africa wondering if reporters there focus too much on misery.
"The only time the news media ever came out to the neighborhood where I worked in Chicago was when something negative happened, so unless you live or work there you would think the area is completely nuts," explained Okun, who taught in an alternative school in inner-city Chicago. "When I think of Africa, all my thoughts about the continent, by and large, are negative. I wondered if that was because of media portrayal and whether it was the same as the neighborhood where I worked. Is there a sense of normalcy that is not reported by the news media?"
But gripping readers means telling the saddest stories, Kristof said.
The war in Congo is the most lethal conflict since World War II, he said.
"And it goes on partly because nobody is paying attention to it," Kristof said. "If we shine that light, force people to pay attention, then we can help get it on the agenda."
Meanwhile, an ominous line in the trip itinerary helped convince filmmaker Metzgar to refuse the first offer to make "Reporter."
"One of the entries said, ‘Visit the warlord and stay the night with him and his child soldiers,’" Metzgar said. "I passed."
Producer Mikaela Beardsley later persuaded Metzgar to direct, edit and narrate the haunting documentary.
"I really didn’t understand what it was all about," Metzgar said. "To try to wrap my brain around the politics was just a different world to me."
He was "completely terrified" upon meeting the warlord at his hideout in the jungle, admitted Metzgar.
Congo is awash in violence fueled by years of ethnic hatred.
Because readers tune out as casualty numbers increase, Kristof stressed that raising awareness about the plight of Africa means telling stories about the ugliest the continent has to offer.
"Why settle for just any story out there if I can find one that really will move people," he said. "They’re out there; it’s just a matter of finding them."
"Reporter" is slated to screen in Park City during Sundance Jan. 16 at 9:30 p.m. at the Temple Theatre, Jan. 20 at 3 p.m. at the Temple Theatre, Jan. 22 at noon at the Temple Theatre, Jan. 23 at 6:30 p.m. at Redstone Cinemas and Jan. 24 at 9:15 a.m. at Holiday Village Cinema IV.