Documentary about journalist Robert Fisk a highlight of Toronto International Film Festival
Robert Fisk in This Is Not a Movie

TORONTO—One of the most progressive films at the Toronto International Film Festival this year was a National Film Board of Canada documentary, This Is Not a Movie, celebrating the work of lifelong foreign correspondent Robert Fisk. For more than 40 years, he’s reported on some of the most violent and divisive conflicts in the world. Canadian director Yung Chang captures Fisk in action—being escorted through the war terrain of Syria, with pad and pencil in hand, gathering facts to send back to his millions of readers.

In Syria, he writes from the government side, allowing him privileged access that few Western reporters get or want. “In his relentless pursuit of the facts, Fisk has attracted his share of controversy. But in an era of fake news, when journalists are dubbed the “enemies of the people,” Fisk’s resolve to document reality has become “an obsessive war to speak the truth” a description offered by the film’s PR team.

Fisk is a hardened journalist and expert on Middle East conflicts, which he has covered for decades. The difference in his reports is that they come from personal accounts. He’s not one to sit in his comfortable office and search the Internet for his material. He’s out there seeing war and death, searching for the truth and refusing to be bought by Western ambitions of empire. You can see his writings on the Independent website.

He resides in Beirut, Lebanon, a country that is now also becoming a difficult place to live. His analyses of the struggles there are unique and deep. He received the British Press Awards’ International Journalist of the Year seven times, and twice won its “Reporter of the Year” award. He is the only Western reporter to have interviewed Osama bin Laden—three times (1993-1997)!

“After the allied victory of 1918, at the end of my father’s war, the victors divided up the lands of their former enemies,” Fisk reminds us of history. “In the space of just seventeen months, they created the borders of Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia and most of the Middle East. And I have spent my entire career—in Belfast and Sarajevo, in Beirut and Baghdad—watching the people within those borders burn.”

Fisk offers choice insights: “The best definition of journalism I have heard: To challenge authority—all authority—especially so when governments and politicians take us to war, when they have decided that they will kill and others will die.”

In a talk between Fisk and the director, Chang tells of the project’s beginning. “Let’s make a film about journalism, with Fisk as the subject.” He had known and respected his writings for years. Fisk said he had no apprehensions to make another doc although he fell out with the director of a previous film. He wanted to “test this director who was unfamiliar with the region. I thought maybe it would be a distinct advantage that Chang was an outsider. I was impressed that Chang didn’t come to tell people what he thought was going on, rather he asked serious questions with an open mind.”

Fisk admits he’s not an emotional person. He reports soberly and objectively. “Not to weep but to report. You can’t report tragedy when you’re having a mental breakdown. You take on board so much depth and horror that you can’t afford to get personally involved.” But he does get angered when he sees lies.

Robert Fisk and filmmaker Yung Chang

In their talk they discussed how journalism is changing. The rise of citizen journalism and cellphone videos is an indicator of the changing world of how we receive news. You can get facts straight from the conflict, rather than have a journalist. Fisk is impressed with the technology, but feels it still doesn’t necessarily provide all the facts, the full story, the other side. Like “where are the armed men?” In Syria, where are the films of the militant jihadis that have attacked towns and villages, destroyed the infrastructure and killed tens of thousands of civilians and government forces? Like all wars, there are many sides and much information not reported.

Fisk’s “role is to interpret and translate as honestly and truthfully. I never uses the word ‘fake news.’ That’s what used to be called ‘made-up stories.’ It’s a White House invention.” Because of the new technology, and the way most journalists fawn before leaders and unquestioningly accept the main line, you have to question the propaganda and challenge the massive piles of social media stories.

Fisk’s approach is always to follow the money. He’s fascinated by tracking weaponry. “Who sells? Who buys?” In the film he tracks some shell casings in Syria back to a Bosnian arms shipper who sells through Saudi Arabia, which supplies most of the deadly weapons funded by the United States government.

In a Q&A following the screening, Fisk replies to the question “Are you an optimist for the future of journalism?” by answering No. Part of his long reply includes these truisms and suggestions, “There is no peace process between Israel and Palestinians. Stop talking about ‘democracy’ and talk about ‘justice.’ The Middle East doesn’t have justice. The Egyptian Arab Spring was for justice. There is lack of education in the Arab world.” The film provides a humanist education from an award-winning writer who has dedicated his life searching for the truth. It will be released in spring of 2020.


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.