I am an asshole for not caring about Darfur. This, unfortunately, is most of what I took from the first thirty or forty minutes of the documentary Reporter. After director Eric Daniel Metzgar spends lots of time voice-overing a history of Nicholas Kristof, the film’s double Pulitzer winning subject, and talking about how much Americans don’t care about genocide in Africa, I considered walking out, something that is sometimes necessary at the packed Sundance Film Festival. I stuck it out, though, and I’m glad I did, since the movie ends up getting much, much better.
Kristof almost singlehandedly dragged the genocide in Darfur into the consciousness of the world through his New York Times op-ed columns, and he continues to shine his unique light on trouble spots around the globe. He’s an old fashioned crusading reporter, a guy who parachutes in to hot spots and war zones and sends back personal, intimate missives describing the pain on the ground. What he does is exactly what is imperiled in the newspaper meltdown – actual, boots on soil journalism.
The part of the film that gets much better follows Kristof – and the two winners of his Take a Trip With Kristof contest – as they head into the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the Tutsi/Hutu conflict and genocide from Rwanda still plays out. Over the last four years four million people have died as a consequence of this war, whether it be directly at the hands of fighter or from starvation and disease. Kristof and his team – the two winners, a New York Times videographer and the documentary crew – head right into the war zone, looking for the human perspective. They find this in the form of a woman who has been displaced by the conflict and is dying of starvation and in the form of one of the warlords who rules the Eastern Congo through violence and rape.
This is what I wanted to see – the way that a reporter like Kristof finds his stories, the way that he develops contacts, the way that he enters into the lives of the local people and the way that he turns these massive, emotional experiences into relatively short columns. I’m fascinated by the creative process, and I was excited to see Kristof’s in action.
Unfortunately while the film does give a peek into the way that Kristof finds and relates his stories it doesn’t give much of a peek into Kristof himself. He comes across as a kind of genial Vulcan, a guy who does what needs to be done but doesn’t seem to let it touch him much. Obviously that’s a self-defense mechanism – in one scene with the starving woman she screams every time she is moved and you get the impression this is the kind of suffering Kristof has seen again and again – but it does make him a slightly distant subject. The problem with profiling a crusader is that in the middle of his crusade he isn’t that interesting – you have to catch him at the beginning or the end.
Which is where Reporter misses its biggest opportunity. The two contest winners traveling with Kristof offer the perfect ‘in’ for the movie, and while the film does focus a bit on one of them, a medical student who finds herself unable to decide if she should be reporting or helping, it seems like the focus should have been on these two and how they experience the trip. That would have also given Metzgar a chance to get a lot of the information he shovels in up front into the movie in a less obtrusive way. In fact, I couldn’t help but feel there’s a TV series in following the two contest winners on their Tragical African Tour – a reality series that actually confronts real world issues and contains real life pathos.
Reporter feels a little too strident, and like it can’t decide if it wants to be about journalism or about the horrors of genocide in Africa. The thing is that the film could do both, but it seems to be unable to do quite either.