Review: The battle between the picture and the story

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The Independent Culture
STRIDING over the remains of the American Marine headquarters in Beirut, Robert Fisk looked a bit like Schliemann above the ruins of Troy. Field grasses and wild mint have grown over the rubble now and wiry plants mimic the tangle of reinforcing rods that sprout from the blasted concrete. Further on, murals fade in the sunlight - graffiti and regimental flags and foot-soldiers' calenders marking time before that permanent halt. But in From Beirut to Bosnia (C 4) Fisk is not looking for the artefacts of a dead civilisation; he's looking for evidence of a coming disaster - the growing gulf between Muslims and the West.

Fisk wrote a lengthy piece in the Independent on Sunday this weekend elaborating his anxiety about the laborious way documentaries construct their truth. In turn his producer, Michael Dutfield, was anxious about the article, on the grounds that anyone who read it wouldn't be able to concentrate on the film itself. He was right, up to a point. 'Oh look,' you thought, 'there's that armchair they had the big row about and that must be the one-minute driving sequence that took them two days to film.' But Dutfield reckoned without the conjuror's ability of good television to make its devices disappear, however hard you stare. When Fisk walked through the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps, recalling the day he entered to find everyone dead, you simply forgot that the crew was somewhere in the background, frantically trying to keep children out of the camera's eyeline.

The film opened with a director's moment - a beautiful shot of a man tending a fire in a shell-damaged building, a picture drawn by Goya and coloured by Disney. But the walking shot in the camp was a journalist's moment - a piece of simple reportage that darkened the sunny dust more effectively than the archive pictures of the victims. Fisk's concern is about the blurry, difficult competition between these two principles, that of showing a picture and telling a story, an antagonism made more complicated by the fact that the two are also mutually dependent. Which would more effectively press home Fisk's case about the Israeli intervention in southern Lebanon - a complicated analysis of historical alliances and trade- offs or one picture of a child burned by an Israeli phosphorus bomb?

I'll return to the substance of the films later, because Fisk is clearly building a long-range thesis about our failure to understand the Muslim sense of injustice. As for the form, I think he's right to raise the issue. It has been raised before - usually when television virgins wake bruised from their first night with the medium - and the professionals conventionally wave off the protests with explanations about the navety of those making them. In most cases, though, the professionals are defending cliches, and time consuming cliches at that. If they gave up on the door- opening and car-arriving, what treasures might they find around the corner?

The 40 Minutes (BBC 2) on the work of Dr Peter Green had only one moment of conspicuous tricksiness - a decidedly odd shot in which the police surgeon got ready to go out while we peered down at him from halfway up the stairs. It looked as if he was leaving the camera crew at home to put themselves to bed with a cup of cocoa. By the end of this grim parade of human misery you wished they had.

'The worst things that we get asked to see - apart from severely mutilated bodies - are children who have been violated,' said Green, a careful, gentle, melancholy man. Larkin wrote that 'Man hands on misery to man / It deepens like a coastal shelf' and if that's true Dr Green is a deep-sea diver, contending with pressures most of us would crumple under. At one point he examined a tearful woman, her arms and legs latticed with self-inflicted cuts, but the pictures didn't make you shudder as much as her sniffled explanation - 'Because I'm sick of people telling me about my children and things like that', she said, and you saw the bottom fall a little deeper still.