*. The title has nothing to do with Magritte. Instead, this is a documentary on the journalistic career and ethos of reporter Robert Fisk, and the title comes from something Fisk says at the end about how real life, which is what he hopes to capture in his writing, isn’t like a movie.
*. Fisk died in 2020. I thought he did a great job covering the Middle East, and his book The Great War for Civilisation is a landmark work on the history of recent conflicts in the region. This film isn’t about the Middle East though, but instead lets Fisk tell his own story, laying out his philosophy on the role of a reporter today.
*. That philosophy involves leaving “a direct and emotional record” as a witness, so that ages hence no one will be able to say they didn’t know or weren’t told about some specific crime or outrage. Journalism is, in other words, a calling, which it pretty much has to be for someone so willing to put himself directly in harm’s way as both a columnist and a street reporter. And if having a calling can make you sound at times a little full of yourself, that also comes with the territory.
*. I didn’t mind this, because I think journalists need a sense of idealism. It serves as an anchor, and antidote not just to the lack of rigour exercised in a lot of Internet reporting but to the nihilism that infects so much of our post-truth dispensation. People often mistake outraged idealists as cynics, but the true cynics are the ones who make such charges because they’re afraid of the idealists, seeing them as whistleblowers.
*. It’s not just the nihilistic spirit of the age Fisk opposes but the digital form it takes. Fisk is presented as the last of a breed, writing with pen into his notepad and with a study at home that’s lined with bales of newspaper cuttings and other physical records. As with other aspects of his belief system, this can come across as a little much. But he does have a point. Where will we find the truth when everything is in the cloud, where it’s far easier to manipulate or be made to disappear entirely?
*. In one conversation with a younger journalist I thought Fisk even came out a bit worse for wear in an argument over the value of digital journalism. Fisk doesn’t condemn the Internet, but he has his doubts, while insisting on the value of his own old-school methods. “If you don’t go to the scene and sniff it and talk to the people and see with your own eyes you cannot get near what the truth is. I more and more feel, especially in the age of the Internet, when so little is proved and so little checked out, that there’s more and more reason to do the old kind of journalism.”
*. But against a deeper form of nihilism, moral rather than epistemological, there is no defense. “It doesn’t matter how much we blame the bad guys, I don’t think it has a lot of effect. It would be nice to believe that the Foreign Correspondent movie was the real thing, he manages to get the bad guys, the German spies, everything works out fine. But the truth is that this is not a movie, and it’s very arrogant of any journalist to think they can change the world or alter the course of a war. You do like to think that sometimes you can switch on the lighthouse and the beam touches something and something that otherwise would happen will not happen. When you try to tell the truth maybe occasionally the torture stops and the condemned’s cell opens. and maybe we helped. Mostly, I fear, what we write doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference. Like constantly having to tell the story of the Palestinians. You will never win over the world to your version of events, however accurate, however truthfully told, however angrily written. You’ll never win. But you will lose unless you keep on fighting.”
*. This seems a “heads you lose, tails they win” sort of thing. Still, like Camus’ Sisyphus we have to believe Fisk was happy fighting his battles. If he suffered from illusions, at least they were of the productive kind.