“I Was Fascinated By the Way Film Could Represent Reality”: Yung Chang in Conversation with Robert Fisk

The director of This is Not a Movie interviews his subject, Middle East correspondent Fisk, about his abiding love of cinema.

I’ve been following Robert Fisk’s work since my university days in Montreal back when I was reading his articles posted on ZNET, along with Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Edward Said, and the like. When producers Anita Lee (from the National Film Board of Canada) and Nelofer Pazira contacted me about making a film about him, I was at first hesitant but later, after meeting Robert in Beirut, realized he could make a fascinating vessel in which to explore the theme of journalism and the politics of truth.

Over the course of making this film with Robert, I realized that he’s a pure cinephile and has a very sharp knowledge of cinema’s power to persuade. An experience he had with a 1993 Channel 4 documentary series, From Beirut to Bosnia, left him critical of the documentary filmmaking process. He wrote about it here. To achieve a more truthful process and ground our film This is Not a Movie in journalistic integrity, we established some rigorous rules: No camera set-ups, we follow Fisk and chase the action, and no “second takes.” This would be an “ugly” film. Most crucially, I had final cut.

Robert Fisk (second right) in This is Not a Movie.

At the time of the world premiere of This is Not a Movie at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Fisk and I had a chat about his obsession with war cinema in this exclusive interview for Talkhouse. This is Not a Movie opens Oct 16, across the U.S. See here for a virtual screening near you.

Yung Chang: Robert, I believe at one point you wanted to be a film critic. Is that right?

Robert Fisk: I was always keen on movies because when I was 10 or 12 years old – in about 1956 or ’58 – my parents and I would watch movies on our little television. Every week there was something called “Film Festival”; the movies were all from the 1930s or early 1940s, and it was the one imaginative moment of the week, outside of school or reading a book. I was fascinated by the idea that a film contained every other art: music, acting, drama, and the substance of literature, if the script was good. It seemed to me to be the highest form of art, because it contained everything else.

I was so fascinated by movies that when I was about 16 or 17, I wanted to be a film critic. I loved the idea of spending the whole of my life watching films, and I actually tried to be a film critic for Kent Life, a monthly magazine based in a small Kentish town. For two months, I was their film critic and I went into Maidstone with a free ticket to everything that I wanted to see. Then it went bankrupt, and that was the end of Kent Life. And I ended up in Beirut!

Foreign Correspondent

Chang: What were some of the movies you were writing about? Do you recall how you were looking at them and the observations and criticisms you made?

Fisk: I was watching films based on Hemingway, serious films. Later on, I started going up to London to watch films like Knife in the Water, and movies by Wajda, who did the three great Polish wartime films. I think I was fascinated by the way that film could represent reality, and one of those movies was Foreign Correspondent, which was the movie that made me want to be a journalist. I was also watching epics like Sir Lancelot and the “sword and sandals” films. Ben-Hur would have been one of those in that period, and I still find that to be a very fine movie.

Chang: What do you like about it?

Fisk: The scene where the galleys are going down and the slaves are drowning. It’s a terrifying scene, and it’s very realistic. One of the things I hated about war movies was that, even though I’d never seen a war, I knew it was fake. There were some movies – especially those made during the Second World War – that simply are awful, and it was only about 10 years after the end of the war that you started to get more realistic films like Dunkirk, the original black-and-white film from 1958. There’s also a great film called The Cruel Sea, which was based on a novel by Nicholas Monsarrat. The novel is magnificent (except that Monsarrat doesn’t understand women), but the movie is an absolute cracker.

The Cruel Sea

Chang: So post-World War II, you noticed a shift in the way people were representing war?

Fisk: Oh, definitely, yes, because there was a definite intention to get money to make good films. And by “good films,” I mean high production values, so that instead of using old documentary footage of a German bomber, they would actually get a real German bomber for the movie – and you’d be on it! Because my father was in the First World War, I was always fascinated by how war would be reproduced, and the degree of reality to what war represented, particularly the Second World War.

Chang: If you were to direct a war film, what would it be?

Fisk: A remake of Foreign Correspondent, of course! But it’s so good, I couldn’t do it. I’ve often wondered about what kind of film I might direct, though.

Chang: I think you’d be a very good director, and a maybe a good scriptwriter, too. I find your writing very visual, so do you take elements from cinema and apply that to the way you write? I find that sometimes you create scenes, and you don’t overwrite or use flowery language.


Fisk: I actually go to films to reflect on how they compare against my life, what I’ve experienced, what I think about and what I’ve read. Some scenes in films are so remarkable that what does happen is that I reflect not on the way I write, but on the way I see things. An example of that is Downfall, with Bruno Ganz as Hitler, which is a remarkable film. It’s chilling the way Hitler is acting, and how the secretaries half admire him and half are horrified by him. When I’m in the Middle East and see the secretaries of presidents, militia leaders or dictators, I think of the Bruno Ganz movie and how similar the characters in film are to them.

Chang: If you wanted to direct a film, a war film or another kind of film, what genre would it be?

Fisk: Well, if it was a war film, you’d put it under horror, for sure. The problem with making a war film is, are you making it as an exciting movie or a realistic one?

Chang: What would you do?

Fisk: Some Russian movies on the Second World War, like Ballad of a Soldier, are visually very powerful and portray war in a very realistic way, but they are the exception. In Russian novels and some Russian movies, you will suddenly meet people who are incredible – and then they disappear and you never see them again. That’s what war is like. If I made a movie, there would be lots and lots of people in it, but I would only follow the narratives of one or two, and then not all the time to the end. Because war is a panorama of humanity: refugees, soldiers, bomber crews, mass grave diggers, or the dead – those who are going to die. If I made a war movie, it would need to have very powerful characters, serious people with great emotions of love or hatred or loathing, all of whom would come and go. In almost every war movie I’ve ever seen (except for the Russians ones, which get it right), the guys you meet at the beginning will get thinned down by gunfire so that only a few will be left at the end to discuss what happened, but in real life it’s not like that.

Ballad of a Soldier

Chang: Do we romanticize the World Wars?

Fisk: Yes, because people make space movies and animated movies about war, and make films that are now projecting future wars, because they don’t know what they’re going be and might not be here when they happen. So many films now are made about post-nuclear war scenarios, about what happens after the nuclear explosion, when the world is over. I constantly open my newspaper in Beirut to see what’s on at the local cinema and it’s films set 20 years after the destruction of Earth. I think, “Christ, is it that bad?”

Violence and war are obsessions. And how many new films about future wars show all the same ruins? They’re actually modeling them on ruins from World War II or the present day. I was very struck once when I was filming in a war zone with an Armenian cameraman and I said to him, “This reminds me of the photographs my dad sent home to me of the destroyed villages of Northern France after the Germans had blown them up in their retreat.” I could take those photographs which my dad sent home and could put them on the walls of the Syrian city, and they would match perfectly.

Yung Chang is the multi-award-winning director of Up the Yangtze《沿江而上》(2007), China Heavyweight《千錘百鍊》(2012), The Fruit Hunters (2013) and Gatekeeper (2016). In 2015, Chang was a Fellow at the prestigious Sundance Institute Directors and Screenwriters Labs, where he worked on his first dramatic feature, Eggplant.. Chang’s films have screened at international film festivals including Sundance, Berlin, TIFF, and IDFA, and have played theatrically in cinemas around the world. His latest feature documentary, This Is Not a Movie, which follows the controversial Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, is now screening virtually and at select theaters around the country. (Photo by Richmond Lam.)