Anyone with even a passing knowledge of war reporting will be familiar with the name Robert Fisk. One of the most prolific and renowned journalists on the planet, Fisk has reported on the Middle East since the middle of the 1970s, covering one of the most febrile and politically complex regions in the world for the likes of The Times and The Independent. Yung Chang’s documentary This Is Not a Movie follows Fisk as he doggedly continues to work as a septuagenarian and reflects on his illustrious career.
Fisk’s impact is clear from the opening moments, in which we see him on the frontline of a devastating conflict in the 1990s. “I’m beginning to wonder why I got into journalism,” he quips, as he and his cameraman run back to their car and speed to safety. When director Yung Chang artfully winds the clock forward to the present day, Fisk walks the same streets again as an older man, but with the same commitment to, and belief in, his craft.
This Is Not a Movie benefits from Fisk’s status as a compelling, charismatic figure who is unafraid to speak his mind. As he himself points out, he has historically been one of the few war correspondents in modern times to marry traditional reporting with the free expression of his opinions as a columnist. It’s a position that often gets him into trouble for being pro-someone or anti-somebody-else, but Fisk is unapologetic about his loyalty to the truth as he witnesses it.
There’s something pleasantly old school about Fisk, who insists upon only reporting from firsthand experience of a location and situation. He walks from person to person, notebook welded to his hand, in a bold pursuit of the truth. This Is Not a Movie paints a romantic picture of journalism — Fisk was inspired into the profession by the Hitchcock movie Foreign Correspondent — and it’s one that occasionally feels slightly dated, particularly in Fisk’s dislike for The Independent “turning into a website”.
Occasionally, the film is a little too misty-eyed about Fisk’s classical approach and it also often feels as if it’s repeating itself. Lengthy detours to explore specific recent issues don’t really add much to the portrait of the man at the centre of it all. There are only occasional nods to the controversial nature of some of Fisk’s reporting and the possibility of exploring wider journalistic context around the protagonist’s work is not really capitalised upon.
This Is Not a Movie often feels frustratingly surface level, as if speaking solely to those who already recognise Fisk’s importance. The film assumes a great degree of familiarity with the knotty politics of the Middle East and provides little context for some of the challenges journalism faces today that are different to what Fisk faced when he first left the UK for the region that would become his home. It’s an enjoyable documentary, chronicling an extraordinary life, but it often feels just a little too cosy.
Dir: Yung Chang
Scr: Yung Chang, Nelofer Pazira
Cast: Robert Fisk
Prd: Anita Lee, Allyson Luchak, Nelofer Pazira, Ingmar Trost
DOP: Duraid Munajim
Music: Ohad Benchetrit, Justin Small
Country: Canada, Germany
Run time: 106 mins
This Is Not a Movie is available in the UK on Curzon Home Cinema from 12th June.