An interview with journalist Robert Fisk, in New Zealand to talk about his new book, The Great War for Civilisation, and present his 1993 documentary From Beirut to Bosnia. Photography by Catherine Bisley.
Robert Fisk removes his shoe and slaps and shakes it vigorously, as if trying to remove a stone. He’s re-enacting an incident in epic World War II film Kanal: as the Polish resistance emerges from Warsaw’s sewers, they see a boy perched on a barricade as Nazi shells whoosh past, attempting what Fisk is demonstrating. “I’ve seen people in wars, in obvious great danger, preoccupied by some domestic thing.”
It’s a daunting privilege interviewing Fisk. I worried he might lambaste me for ignorance, as John Pilger did to Kim Hill. “Have you read it?” Fisk asks immediately, glancing at his 1366-page tome The Great War For Civilisation. “A lot of it.” He seems satisfied. Pilger comes up later: “The one thing I try to avoid is people who want to try and co-opt me into causes.”
Fisk, 59, maintaining his gruelling workload in Wellington, appears exhausted. Once the interview begins, however, he is gregarious and committed, animated and passionate, witty and urbane.
Fisk’s vivid, vital book has lots of references to films; he seems passionate about the medium. Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent inspired him to be a journalist. What are some other films that inspired and inspire him? Fisk lights up, enthusiastically reeling off a great list of titles, which include A Man For All Seasons, A Bridge Too Far, and the two films that accompany Kanal in Pole Andrzej Wajda’s World War Two trilogy, A Generation and Ashes and Diamonds.
Nobody’s perfect, but The Independent’s Middle East correspondent’s skill, originality, fearlessness, and tenacity on the ground make him one of the greats. He reported Iranian troops being gassed by Saddam Hussein (then backed by Rumsfeld and Ronald Reagan), chronicling their deaths by coughs of blood and mucus. He exposed America’s Abu Ghraib-style torture in Iraq. He’s interviewed Osama Bin Laden three times—terrifically evocative, riveting reportage, which opens The Great War For Civilisation. “You couldn’t write that with Google.”
A deep sense of history moves through Fisk. “I tell you the movie which really does capture war, the issue of conflict and the ways it affects human beings—apart from Downfall—is Paths of Glory. Kirk Douglas and that terrible story of the three men who were executed for cowardice: that’s the Battle of Verdun.”
Fisk (PhD History) has a richly cultured British voice, which polishes his words. War, he believes, represents the total failure of the human spirit. Downfall, which following the last days of Hitler, captures this. “The fall of Berlin is pretty accurate.”
Fisk, whom the actor John Malkovich famously said he would like to kill, is enthusiastic about contemporary films. “Most recently, I liked Syriana, but it wasn’t as good as I would have liked it… I think Paradise Now is an excellent film, the story of two potential suicide bombers, one of whom is of course a suicide bomber. There was so much in it, you kept having to go back over it and over it again to understand.”
Kingdom of Heaven, Ridley Scott’s tale of the crusades, also impresses Fisk with its contemporary resonances, such as the drive for imperial power. “I thought Kingdom of Heaven was a very fine film. I think there were things that were clearly wrong with it—the fact that the great speech is given to Balian of Ibelin, that we don’t have a great speech from Saladin—[but] there’s that wonderful scene in end when Balian makes terms with Saladin and he turns and says ‘What does Jerusalem mean to you?’ Saladin says ‘Nothing… Everything’. He’s played by this very famous Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud, whom I know quite well, who’s very anti-Bush by the way.”
Fisk furiously bears witness to Bush’s obscenity, but he’s not inherently anti-American. On page 1151 of his book he responds to Donald Rumsfeld’s insidious slurs about France and Germany as ‘old Europe’, “It was Rumsfeld and Bush who represented the ‘old’ America; not the ‘new’ America of freedom, the America of F.D. Roosevelt.”
Fisk’s account of watching Kingdom of Heaven in a Muslim part of his home base of Beirut is illuminating. “It was very interesting to watch the audience. Everytime Saladin did something merciful they stood up and clapped. When he offered his doctors to the King of Jerusalem, who of course was a Christian crusader, they cheered. And the same when at the end of the film he goes into Jerusalem—they’ve captured it—he picks up a crucifix and puts it back on the altar, and they all stood up and clapped. All Muslims, very interesting—the flipside of the fear of Muslims thing.”
Good Night, and Good Luck is another film he recommends. “It’s spot on for now. I saw it in America. It was like watching the present day.” Fisk says the labelling of “criticism as unpatriotic” and journalists unable (or unwilling) to monitor the centres of power—which director George Clooney analyses—are the biggest problems the American media faces.
However, truth isn’t necessarily enough; he cites Jarhead, about the 1991 Gulf War. “Very self-regarding, unsatisfying. It left me with the same coldness of heart as Pearl Harbour did.”
Fisk relates to the ordinary immediacy and urgency of docudramas like The Battle of Algiers and Kandahar. “I thought Kandahar’s power come from the fact that they were real people. Nelofer Pazira is a Canadian [-Afghani] journalist… the Imam teaching the children how to use the Kalashnikov, that is what he does, the boy who collects jewellery from the skeletons of people who die in the desert, that’s actually what he does.”
Talking of Algeria, Ahmed Zaoui recently gained another supporter. Fisk visited him at St Benedict’s Dominican Priory in Auckland, describing the man as “intrinsically decent” and the situation as “very farcical” on National Radio.
The seven-time winner of International Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards (dubbed the Oscars of British journalism), Fisk is Britain’s most celebrated foreign correspondent. “It’s very lonely.” Despite his legendary, even saintly reputation (striking at his Writers and Readers week sessions), Fisk expresses doubts about thirty years covering people drowning in misery and bloodshed. “You can’t wind the movie back and start again, and you do ask yourself what you’ve lost.” After a second, short interview two days later, Fisk, who is sans wife and family, addresses his last words to my photographer sister: “What’s it like having him as a brother?” Like Clint Eastwood’s God’s Loneliest Man in Million Dollar Baby, there’s something tragic about his role.
Thankfully Fisk, who’s writing his magisterial piece on the third anniversary of the American-led invasion of Iraq around the day’s interviews, has no plans to hang up his gloves and leave the ring. This unrelenting journalist, returning to Beirut and Baghdad, has one particular production he wants no part in. “Tony Blair, can you please remove all the British troops from Iraq?” he imagines himself on video, after being kidnapped by decapitating militants. What scares him most, he laughs bitterly, is imagining Mr. Blair’s response watching that tape.
In another life, he would have written screenplays. “I’ve helped write several screenplays recently, one in particular. I think the film world is very corrupt—I know it is—and I think it’s a very depressing world because you can write and rewrite scripts and then even if a film gets made it’s not certain of any distribution, most films aren’t ever seen as you know… People who want to make good movies end up on these ridiculous tight budgets and people slosh around this huge money for crap. But that’s always been the way in Tinseltown hasn’t it?”
Fisk is intoxicated by the possibilities of movies. “The sign of a good film is when you wake up in the morning thinking about it… I think film has an unstoppable power to convince if it’s properly made. When I was at school I wanted to be a film critic.
“I write about films quite a lot in The Independent. I wrote about Munich at great length… Spielberg’s movie has crossed a fundamental roadway in Hollywood’s treatment of the Middle East conflict.”
Fisk, who is not a fan of Michael Moore, wrote and presented 1993’s under-screened From Beirut to Bosnia. At a packed screening of this eye-opening documentary at the Paramount on Sunday, he sits modestly on the ground, front-left aisle. He approaches me. “Has Munich screened here yet?”
From Beirut to Bosnia strikingly shows Muslim suffering, explaining why there is unhappiness with the West. There are horrific, unflinchingly filmed, images, such as a Lebanese baby that has been hit by an Israeli bomb, and looks like a crushed loaf of bread. (Bizarrely, the Paramount does a roaring trade in boysenberry ice creams.)
Fisk is unapologetic. “This is what I see.”
So Fisk can’t tell us a lot about his secretive film project? “No nothing.” We could probably make some guesses about the themes? “No, you couldn’t make ‘em.”
Fisk, the stone in the boot of Blair and Bush, can tell me about the documentary he’s making, though. After my interview, he’s off to film the words of Ataturk, Turkish commander at Gallipoli and founder of modern Turkey, which appear on the cathartic Ataturk Memorial at Wellington’s Tarakina Bay: “There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us… You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and at peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons too.”