Through a Lens, fuzzily: This week Channel 4 begins a series of three documentaries featuring our award-winning Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk. He found the experience salutary. If the camera never lied, it certainly had an influence on the truth

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The Independent Culture
'YOU KNOW, Bob, I'm getting a bit worried about this piece you're planning to write about the making of these films.' Michael Dutfield sat in the back of our car as we climbed slowly up through the hot Chouf mountains in a hopeless attempt to pass through the front lines into southern Lebanon and film Israel's notorious prison at Khiam. As the director of a three-part series for Channel 4, Dutfield had been growing anxious for days. Southern Lebanon was unusually quiet, we had yet to interview Hizbollah gunmen, we had not secured a single foot of film of a wounded civilian. We had only just evaded a Syrian prohibition on our filming inside the Sabra and Chatila Palestinian camps. Even hiring an aircraft to fly Michael's cameraman, Steve Foster, over the ruins of Beirut had been stymied; every one of the Lebanese army's helicopters was grounded for lack of spare parts and we could not get permission to take the passenger door off the only plane available - an elderly Piper Cub - so that Steve could get a clear shot of the city. Michael and I were already rowing.

Why should he worry about the article I planned to write, I asked him? What was so sacred about film and television documentaries that they could not be critically examined by a journalist involved in making three of them? 'I think it will give the wrong idea,' Michael replied with irritation. 'The viewers will not concentrate on the things they should be concentrating on; they'll be looking for the bits you complain about.'

IT SEEMED a long time since Michael, Dennis Walsh, the producer, and I had agreed to make our three films. Even the content and name of the project had changed. What started out as a historical series on the artificial frontiers drawn around the Muslim world by the Western powers after the First World War - 'Lines in the Sand' it was to have been called - had become a modern-day journey through the Middle East and the Balkans with the camera 'on my shoulder' as I reported for the Independent in Beirut, in Gaza and Jerusalem, in Cairo and Sarajevo. And never did I imagine when I agreed to this new schedule how that Aaton film camera would intimidate, infuriate, frighten, attract and magnify the men and women to whom I spoke, how the technology of television would both trivialise and authenticate the world in which I had lived for 17 years. Even in a Palestinian hospital, a clapper-board - a real Hollywood-style chalk board with a black-and-white 'clapper' on top - had been clacked in front of wounded men. Now the series was called From Beirut to Bosnia, although I was beginning to suspect we might never reach the Balkans.

And we had already developed what Michael was to refer to - with masterly understatement - as 'a disputatious relationship'. There was no doubting his professionalism. A former boxing champion at Cambridge, now a tall man of 46 with shaggy, uncombed hair, a passion for motorbikes and eyes that fixed on the object of his interest with a disturbing, almost unblinking stare, Michael Dutfield had worked for Panorama and made a host of prizewinning documentaries. And his heart was devoted to the theme of the films we found ourselves making: the despair and contempt and sometimes hatred felt by growing numbers of Muslims towards the West. It was he who had refused to stop filming when Israeli troops repeatedly tried to arrest us on the streets of Gaza. It was he who found the brave little Palestinian family of Mohamed Khatib outside Jerusalem - whose tiny home was to be bulldozed away so that the Jewish settlement surrounding it could be further enlarged.

But there was something about Michael's approach towards films - the approach of all directors - that troubled me. It was not the theatricality I identified in documentary film- making - cruelly and wrongly in Michael's eyes - but the refusal to acknowledge it. I was to learn a lot - 'not enough', I hear Michael remark as he reads this - about film-making. And I learnt to admire what it can achieve.

I also learnt to be deeply suspicious of it.

'If you try to tell that story to my 82-year- old Mum, she'll be so confused she'll fall off her chair,' Michael would say each time a Palestinian or a Bosnian had finished a long and complicated political explanation on film. Michael's 82-year-old Mum - a lady whom I did not have the honour to meet - began to dominate my life. The moment a UN officer tried to outline the problems his soldiers experienced in Lebanon with the 'de-facto forces' of Israel's 'South Lebanon Army allies', the second an Egyptian fundamentalist embarked on the history of his movement, I experienced a clear picture of Michael's 82-year-old Mum crashing to the floor. She wouldn't understand the detail, was what Michael was saying. Just as viewers would get the 'wrong idea' if I wrote this article. I found this a strange argument.

If it was not shaped for television, reality had to be made digestible. It had to meet certain requirements, the first of them being simplicity. And it also had to show what the director regarded as the reality, even if the occasional item of furniture tended to contradict this. Take the example of the gentle, elderly Shia Muslim woman in the shell-smashed slums of Beirut's southern suburbs who told us of how her son, a Hizbollah guerrilla, asked her one evening to have her photograph taken with him. The 'Haji' agreed, and still possesses the picture of her son sitting beside her in her garden, his hand in hers. That night, unknown to the woman, her son set off on a suicidal mission against the Israeli occupation army in southern Lebanon. His body was never recovered.

But when the Haji was ready to tell this painful story on film, Michael did not like the sofa upon which she was sitting. It was second- hand, the only piece of bright colour in the room. 'It gives the wrong impression,' Michael said. 'She's poor but it makes her look rich. And she's not rich.'

I objected to this. If the sofa gave the wrong 'impression', then so be it. The way we furnish our homes is the way we paint our caves. This woman's sofa was part of her identity. I loudly complained that to move the sofa would be like making a Hollywood film rather than a television documentary, a remark that at once angered Michael's cameraman, Steve. 'Come over here and look through the lens, Bob,' he said softly. I peered through it and understood at once. What was in reality a rather shabby second-hand sofa was transformed by the camera's lens into a heavily-embroidered, satin- covered chaise-longue. It was as if the Haji had just that minute returned from the Ideal Home Exhibition. For her to sit on that sofa while she spoke of her dead son would appear almost obscene. Michael was right. She would have to sit on a steel-framed chair in the same room; which is how she will be seen in the first episode of the series, 'The Martyr's Smile', on Tuesday evening.

But if the camera was culpable, the technology was supposedly supreme and had to be accepted. We had, in effect, to move the furniture in order to accommodate the 'reality' of the camera. Just as we had to shoot and re- shoot street scenes to accommodate the different camera angles needed to establish the verisimilitude of the film. The opening minute of Tuesday night's programme, for example - in which I drive and then walk through the ruins of Beirut at dusk to reach the Haji's house - took a total of almost six hours to film on two separate evenings. Steve climbed into the top of a pulverised building in Martyr's Square as Abed Moghrabi, the Independent's driver in Beirut, moved his car slowly through the ruins. But on the first occasion, a truck pulled out in front of us and obscured the view. On the second occasion, a Lebanese army officer tried to stop us driving down the road because he'd been told two weeks before that cameras were forbidden in the area.

It was exasperating. When we drove from Beirut to Baalbek or from Tel Aviv to Gaza, we would go through a similar theatrical process. Michael would wave to us to start the car and we would drive along the highway past the crew, taking care not to look at the camera. Then we would do it again, because another truck or a bus had spoilt our 'reality' by driving down the road in front of us. Wasn't this, I asked Michael, simply theatre? 'Don't look at the camera' became a kind of law. Because, of course, the camera is not supposed to be there. In hospitals in Gaza and Sarajevo, in the Chatila camp, in the 'ethnically cleansed' villages of northern Bosnia, we were always telling people not to look at the camera.

Michael returned to his maternal explanation. 'How do I explain to my 82-year-old Mum that you're driving through the streets of Beirut if I haven't got a clear shot of you driving there?' he asked. 'If you're going to Baalbek, my 82-year-old Mum wants to see you going there. I can't afford eight film crews lining the road from Beirut to Baalbek in the hope that just one of them manages to get a good shot of Lord Fisk as he passes on his way. So we have to ask you to do it like this.'

But again, it seemed to me, this avoided the issue. The main problem was not the technique of documentary-making, which I began to find embarrassing, but the refusal to acknowledge that a problem existed. The apprehension which Michael expressed in the Chouf mountains - that viewers would not 'concentrate on the things they should be concentrating on' if I explained how these films were made - stemmed partly, I thought, from his anxiety that those who might wish to attack the content of our programmes would do so by claiming that we had 'staged' scenes in the films. In fact, I've watched Israeli television crews moving whole families across streets in southern Lebanon for 'realistic' shots - something Michael would never do - and the Hizbollah has clearly used different camera angles on a supposedly 'natural' shot of a guerrilla in one of its recent videos. So possible critics have practised far more 'liberal' techniques themselves.

But what really concerned Michael, I think, was the idea that by discussing the technical side of the film, we would be revealing the camera's drawbacks and limitations, the failure rather than the success of the technology in which we - making these films - expected the public to believe. How else can one explain the problems we had in choosing those who would or would not appear in the films? In Beirut and Gaza and Sarajevo, we would talk to crowds of Lebanese, Palestinians or Bosnian Muslims, seeking out not only those who had a story to tell and who were prepared to tell it - but who could tell it simply, and preferably in English. Given the fashion for dubbing, Michael's decision to allow men and women to speak in their original language with subtitles was honourable. But the process of seeking out those whom we wanted to appear in the film involved their ability to speak coherently in their own language, let alone in English. We judged them on their performance in private conversation. Or, as Michael would say on such occasions, we would 'audition' them.

It was a memorable phrase, for it suggested what I most feared about television: the element of theatricality or contrivance which is necessary in the making of any documentary. Repeatedly - in the Palestinian camps in Beirut and Gaza, in the slums of Cairo - children would scramble in front of the camera and we would have to herd them away. Michael's explanation for this phenomenon was easy: 'They want their mums to see them on the telly.' But I gradually realised this was untrue. What these children were doing was responding to a reality we refused to accept: that television is a form of theatre. Unaware of our rules - don't look at the camera, pretend it isn't there - they wanted to participate in this theatre, to appear on the stage. Their response to the camera was both natural and accurate.

No wonder we used the word 'audition'. Yet here, it seemed to me, was a further complication. Men and women who looked and sounded convincing could appear in the film. Those who did not rarely got before the camera. In television terms, this made obvious sense. But not in journalistic terms. The best story I obtained for the Independent on Sunday during the filming was from the head of the Bosnian government committee for investigating war crimes. Their files, hitherto unseen by Western journalists, and an interview with their senior lawyer, provided the front-page lead story for the Independent on Sunday. But at no point do the lawyer and his files appear in the film about Bosnia, the third in our series entitled 'To the Ends of the Earth'; the man spoke English but it was difficult to understand and he appeared unable to carry through his argument in front of the camera. Michael's 82- year-old Mum would clearly be falling off her chair. So goodbye to the archives of the Bosnian war crimes tribunal.

Even when coherence was present, a conversation that disturbed the theme of the film would be cut. Under sniper fire beside a bridge over the Miljacka river in Sarajevo, a middle- aged Muslim man described his plight to us. And just as he was saying goodbye, his wife leant forward and said: 'I am Jewish and I was here in the Second World War - but this is worse.' You will see her in the film - but you will not hear her speak. After much consideration, Michael decided her comments would distract viewers from the story of the Muslims of Sarajevo. I disagreed with this decision although colleagues with whom I have discussed it concluded that Dutfield was right.

AN EQUALLY important issue arose when we wanted to include Arab fighters in the Bosnian film. We found a young Algerian guerrilla who had been wounded in the battle for Sarajevo and who was happy to meet me and chat about his life. But he refused to appear on film. His story appeared at the top of a page in the Independent but is not even mentioned in the film. He would not appear on television; so it could not acknowledge his existence.

Even when I talked to Muslims who spoke both fluently and passionately, the sheer expense of filming - we were using real film- stock, not video - became a burden. In newspaper interviewing, you let people talk for as long as they like, make them feel relaxed and at last they'll answer all your questions. But at pounds 20 a minute, we could not allow our television interviewees - whether they be Shia women, Palestinian doctors or Israeli families - to ramble on. I would have to interrupt, interject, cut into their monologue to bring them back to the point. So a degree of suppressed urgency accompanied every appearance. The more the men and women whom we were filming digressed from the subject, the more I could hear Michael behind me, tearing irritably at the vinyl backing to the numbers on the clapperboard, agonising over the money being wasted on film that could never be used.

And time, as well as film, is money, even though only about 10 per cent of the time we spent working was actual journalism. Although free to move about in Egypt for the Independent, I found that a television crew needed an Egyptian government 'minder' with them whenever they filmed. For 12 days, we argued with the Egyptian authorities before receiving permission to film in a military court. For a week we planned to film covertly in the fundamentalist stronghold of Assiut, until our Egyptian driver betrayed us to our government 'minder'. A policeman stopped us filming a fruit market after the 'minder' had given his permission. 'Why are people so bloody frightened of the camera?' Michael kept asking. But they were. After we had filmed sympathisers of the Egyptian Gemaa Islamiya movement - currently at war with President Mubarak's government - in the Cairo slums of Imbaba, fist fights broke out between fundamentalists and Mubarak supporters who were angry we had filmed their opponents.

But when it was used spontaneously, Steve's camera possessed an awesome power - an 'authenticity', Michael called it - which I had to acknowledge. Here Michael came into his own. In Gaza City, Israeli troops were shooting down demonstrators and repeatedly ordering us to turn off the camera; which Michael refused to do. One of the Israelis walked right up to us with his hand outstretched towards the camera lens, saying in Arabic and English: 'Yalla (Go) . . . Finished for today. Take your things and go away. It's finished. It's over. It's a closed military area.' The reason for his fear of the camera - which we did not know as we filmed him - was that he and his men were vandalising and then blowing up the homes of 17 Palestinian families.

Had I been there on my own, I would probably have been left alone. But the camera's power frightened these soldiers. Viewers will see Israeli troops four times trying to prevent us filming - on two occasions putting their hands over our camera. On the film, one of these soldiers - thinking the camera and sound have been turned off - tells a bare-faced lie. He says that a pregnant Palestinian woman trapped in her home by a curfew - a woman for whom we are seeking assistance - has already been taken to hospital, and that our film crew should therefore leave the area. But after he leaves, we find the woman still trapped in the house, weeping and desperate to reach the hospital. In print, his lie could be treated as an allegation. On film, it is a fact.

When the Israelis began shooting down Palestinians in the streets, Steve's camera tracked through the hospital wards to produce scenes which, even after watching them 10 or 12 times, I still find shocking. One of the Palestinians, shot in the brain, died as we filmed him.

My report for the Independent that night - which can be heard in the film - simply cannot compete with the visual image of the man dying as the doctors cluster round his bed, desperate to save his life.

And that, of course, is the point. 'The film is cut for the power and duration of the pictures,' Michael wrote to me before I scripted my commentary for the series. '. . . the commentary should be written to fit - not the other way round.' In writing journalism, we are in control. In film journalism, we can decide what we want to record, but the camera dictates the way in which we do it. We are, in a sense, prisoners of the technology.

Peter Moore of Channel 4 almost acknowledged this in a telephone call to me in Beirut. Television, he admitted, 'is an exhausting, inflexible, often cumbersome medium'. Steve adopted a more technical approach. 'What you do when you write for your paper is digital,' he explained. 'What I do is analog. You take back bits of information in your notebook that can be used to make a story. But what I take back is the 'print'. It will be exactly what appears in the final version.' Michael took a more aggressive view. 'Why should you claim that films are artificial? This is part of the myth of written journalism. When you send your report to the Independent, they put it into type, they put a box and lines round it, they choose a picture for it which you didn't take. And you have to 'clean' quotes because people don't speak in proper sentences. You have to put in full stops and commas and paragraphs. That's what we're doing when we have to use lights or film you in your car. Like your reports, film has to end up as a language. Film is a compromise between words and realism.'

Sometimes, this reality united us in anger. Leaving Israel with his film, Michael was stopped at Tel Aviv airport's traditionally humiliating security check and asked where he had met Palestinians in Gaza. 'Most of them were in hospital,' Michael replied quietly. He was told to be more 'co-operative' by the security supervisor. When, at the final screening, Channel 4's Peter Moore - through insensitivity or lack of imagination - made a legalistic comparison between the threat to Mohamed Khatib's home from the Jerusalem settlements and a man who refused to leave his home in the path of the M62 near Halifax, Michael snapped: 'But the man on the M62 wasn't being told to leave for racial reasons.'

On these issues, Michael and I could agree. But I could never resolve the problems inherent in the making of our films. To question the techniques of film-making would be interpreted as an attack. 'There are some things people don't need to know,' Michael said on that depressing car journey through the Chouf. 'A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.'

But why? Is there not a place - is this not now the time, in the age of satellite television - to discuss the making of such documentary journalism, with its enormous influence and worldwide distribution? We all want to defend our professions but it is as if some mystical wall has been erected around the technology - indeed, the methodology - of television, a wall that must not be breached or even hinted at, at least in public. Because the technology - the ability to place our 'reality' on a television screen with sound and colour and pictures - can be deeply flawed. To open a debate that raises these issues is not to attack television as a medium, least of all those who work in the trade. What I discovered in the three films we made was not just the power of the camera but its capacity to restrict and frustrate and limit.

Michael would not regard this as fair. On that hot, miserable day in the Chouf - before we got our Hizbollah interviews, our footage of Khiam prison and our doorless plane - it was easy to sympathise with his ill-humour. 'I'll tell you what you can write in your fucking article,' he said to me then. 'You can write that making documentary films with Bob Fisk is the most exasperating job on God's earth.' Too bloody true, mate.

'From Beirut to Bosnia': Channel 4, Tues, 9pm, then 14, 21 December.

(Photograph omitted)

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