Anything to Get the Story
"Hold this," I say to documentary giant Barbara Kopple, handing her a Caesar's salad packed between paper plates and then sprinting toward the shuttle bus that she and I have just missed by half a minute.
"Go! Go!" Kopple cheers, sounding a lot like my high school track coach as the bus heads up a hill and momentarily extends its lead.
It's a warm April day in Durham, North Carolina, and we're at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, where two days earlier Kopple's Bearing Witness enjoyed its sold-out world premiere. A portrait of five female war correspondents and their extraordinary dedication to getting the story, Bearing Witness screened on opening night of the festival as part of a war-themed sidebar. Entitled "Why War?", this section of the Full Frame also includes Eugene Jarecki's near-scholarly dissection of the military-industrial complex, Why We Fight, which Kopple and I saw at Sundance and love enough to see again--provided the designated runner can make it to the bus before running out of steam.
Right now I'm panting like a dehydrated dog. I'm thinking the hundred-meter dash isn't nearly as easy as it was 20 years ago when my relay team went to state; I'm also thinking that there aren't a lot of filmmakers for whom I'd break a sweat like this. Kopple, as you probably know, is a legend in the documentary field. Her first feature--Harlan County, U.S.A., which follows the struggles of Kentucky coal miners against both bosses and union officials--won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1977. Since then, her wide-angle lens has captured everyone from Hormel plant workers (American Dream) to Hamptons aristocrats (The Hamptons), from Woody Allen (Wild Man Blues) to Mike Tyson (Fallen Champ). If all goes well, Kopple's next subject will be Jack Kevorkian.
Bearing Witness, which Kopple co-directed with Marijana Wotton, takes a critical look at wartime reportage, though it leaves control-room considerations aside in order to focus on the personal costs of unembedded frontline journalism. The five subjects include Molly Bingham, an American photojournalist who was imprisoned in Abu Ghraib near the start of the Iraq War; Janine DiGiovanni, a writer whose pregnancy complicates her admitted addiction to war correspondence; and May Ying Welsh, an American reporter for Al Jazeera whose self-described mission to ease communication between those on both sides of the war snaps the film's subject into focus. At 90 minutes, Bearing Witness is too short to go very deep into the lives of five women. But it's extremely effective in showing how the job of an alternative war journalist includes not just taking physical risks on a near-constant basis, but absorbing on a psychic level the unspeakable horror that too many of us have the temporary privilege to ignore.
As for this frontline Full Frame reporter: I go the extra (quarter-)mile, catch the bus, bang on the door, persuade the driver to wait for Kopple to catch up, gratefully accept the auteur's rave review of my work, and, in between deep breaths while the bus is rolling, joke with her about how my own "impressive" feat is obviously nothing compared to the heroism of those who dodge bullets and bombs to get their stories.
City Pages: Did Bearing Witness make you glad that you're not a war correspondent?
Barbara Kopple: Yes. But the way I see it, journalists--filmmakers included--are often in some kind of danger when they try to expose the truth. I suppose Bearing Witness is an extreme example of that--The Battle of Chile [another film in "Why War?"] even more so. That film was made during the [Chilean] coup. One of its cinematographers was tortured and murdered. Another was holding the camera when he was shot; right at that moment, he was zooming in on the man who [would shoot] him. In the film, you see people's feet going past the lens after the camera falls to the ground. In essence, this man filmed his own death.
CP: Bearing Witness starts with a title card that says, "More than ever, women are performing this dangerous work [of war reportage]." Why do you think that is?
Kopple: It's hard to say. Each person does it for different reasons. I do think the fact that most of the women [war correspondents] are American and British makes it much more dangerous for them. In fact, May, who really misses Iraq, won't go back because Americans are such targets there right now--whether you're male or you're female.
CP: When I talked to May [after the screening], she told me she wishes more people knew what U.S. policies cost us as Americans--something that she herself knows well. She told me she was working in Fallujah around the time of the siege, and Iraqis were coming up to her in numbers saying, "You bitch, we hate you."
Kopple: Yes. This is one of the costs of not being embedded. The reward, of course, is having more freedom. Mary [Rogers, a videographer profiled in the film] certainly has to struggle with [the major networks] in terms of what gets aired, but at least she gets to shoot what she wants. Working for Al Jazeera, May was more the person in the middle--the communicator.
CP: Did you get the sense that these five reporters cover their stories differently for being women?
Kopple: I think each one of us--male or female--has an individual approach to telling a story. The film is more about how each of [the women] is different from one another than it is about how they're all different from men. Ultimately, it's about people who take their work extremely seriously while trying to keep the rest of their lives in balance. It's all the things we think about and fantasize about in terms of what it must be like for a woman journalist who wants to have it all.
CP: Having it all means having freedom, which for a journalist would mean not being embedded. But that, in turn, means you have less in some ways--less protection, certainly.
Kopple: It's funny, though, because embedded journalists pay a price, too. They're in a place where they almost feel they owe something to the [soldiers] they're with, because they've gotten to know them personally. Of course they say they don't let [those relationships] influence them, but...
CP: What do you think we as consumers of news in the U.S. can do to help get the truth about the war out to a larger audience? What are we up against?
Kopple: Most people in this country have never experienced war firsthand. And the mainstream media rarely if ever attempts to show them what it might be like. So sometimes it's up to documentary filmmakers to try to answer or at least expose the important questions--because we have a lot more freedom. The trade-off is that it's harder to get the work seen: You have to find someone to distribute it, you have to do grassroots organizing to get the word out. It's never easy. But if you have a film that really says something, you figure out other strategies. Look at Outfoxed, for example: That film sold something like 100,000 copies on DVD with the help of moveon.org. You just have to make the film and then get it out any way you can.
CP: You've made documentaries in so many different ways--independently, for networks, for production companies and studios. Do you approach the research and shooting of a film differently based on your expectation of how you're going to have to sell it?
Kopple: I'm not that calculating [laughs]. I just try to tell the best story I can. I make each film as if it could be my last--so I'd better do it well.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.