review

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"Can you see the Holiday Inn from there?" John Simpson asked, as his cameramen peeked out from a Serb gun position overlooking Sarajevo. "Make sure they don't fire at it - give them my room number." The oddity of this detail - one of the besieged off to interview the besiegers - provided one of the better moments in The Troubles We've Seen (Sat BBC2), an erratic film by Marcel Ophuls, which illuminated its chosen subject - war reporting - as fitfully as a sputtering parachute flare. There had been a sudden gleam a little earlier, too. "Good morning's work," said Ophuls, accompanying Simpson on his daily rounds. "Back to the Holiday Inn now?" "Well," replied Simpson, "we really need some shots of soldiers."

You needed such moments to secure your attention through more wayward passages, such as the trite sequence in which Ophuls played chunks of Olivier's Henry V against footage of world leaders. But not all of his apparent inconsequentialities are so easy to dismiss - antique fictions often reveal durable prejudices. It can be a way of refracting hindsight till it lights up the present day. It also helps to remember that you dismiss Ophuls's bumbling manner at your peril. He may look as if he's starring in Monsieur Hulot Makes A Movie, but that puckish indirection and comedy hat conceal a sharp mind and dogged grip. More than one politician has come to regret unflexing their defensive muscles, lulled by his amateurish charm. I recollect with particular pleasure (from Ophuls's excellent film about the collapse of East Germany) the queasy look that crossed Egon Krenz's face when he realised he'd been sapped.

Even so, the manner can look decidedly fey. When Ophuls wants to refer to the classic history of war reporting - Philip Knightley's The First Casualty - he doesn't interview the author, but holds a copy of the book up to the camera, so that we can see the frontispiece - an engraving of a journalist with his foot on an allegorical figure of truth. It's like a child showing you a favourite picture, and you feel a strange obligation to come up with an interested murmur of encouragement. After returning from Sarajevo - where his footage delivers a ragged mix of life-under- seige and journo-campaign stories - Ophuls is filmed in a hotel room, a young naked woman lying companiably across his bed. The point, I think, is to illustrate the reporter's privilege of commuting to and from misery, but it still raises some odd questions. Is she his partner or has she been hired for the occasion, and if so, how far do her duties stretch?

The film was more successful when it ventured onto the question of national differences in reporting. The French apparently favour more humanity in their reports, and more sentiment, though they defer to the BBC's command of formal structure. I don't know whether this is true - you weren't shown quite enough of the French crews to be able to judge - but Ophuls certainly cast a different light on John Simpson, who replaced the earned gravity of his on-screen persona with a distinctively British type - given to jocular public school chaffing and mildly bashful displays of team spirit.

On the following night, The Death of Yugoslavia (Sun BBC2) offered a different kind of war reporting, a gripping account of the road to Sarajevo by those who had set the wheels in motion. In The Second Russian Revolution, the same team handled history while it was warm from the casting - here it was still red-hot and molten, and I wondered for a while whether they would get their fingers burnt. I reckoned without the arrogant transparency of the Serbian nationalist leaders, complacent in their intransigent version of the truth. It didn't matter that they were bound to lie, you realised, because it was just such lies that started the war, and the producers had the film to expose them.

Comments