In his new doc Reporter, doc-maker Eric Daniel Metzgar delves into the ravaged pits of Congo to reveal how one journalist turns media into empathy. Realscreen spoke with Metzgar about the work of Nicholas Kristof and filming in the Congo.
As a reader, you should learn from a news column, not just grasp an opinion. This is how two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof feels about this work. In Eric Daniel Metzgar’s (The Chances of the World Changing, Life. Support. Music) latest doc, Reporter, he traces Kristof’s process of formulating a story – concentrating not just on newsworthy facts, but developing an insight into human atrocities that ultimately has the power to make people care.
As a long time activist, Kristof started his career in journalism through his voyages across Asia and Africa, penning stories of the most heinous human rights abuses in the world. He focuses mainly on conveying the suffering of the individual, rather than collective groups or statistic, in order to draw upon his readers’ sympathies. It’s a method that stems from the ‘psychology of compassion,’ as explained in the film. But there is a fine line between empathy and exploitation.
In Kristof’s opinion, most media ‘gives us remote, large-scale suffering,’ so his calculated approach focuses on one person’s storyline, narrowing the scope of the bigger brutality for the sake of a culturally distant audience. And it works. As Metzgar explains, ‘Kristof’s work has been the catalyst for an unbelievable amount of improvement in the lives of people in the developing world.’
Throughout Reporter, we follow Metzgar, Kristof, a medical student and a photographer/English teacher on a mission into the Democratic Republic of Congo (where over 5 million have died in the last 10 years due to conflict and lack of resources) to seek the most desperate circumstance that will inspire action from readers back home. As the narrator of his film, Metzgar observes how Nicholas Kristof remains emotionally distant when listening to the most inhuman stories. But, says Metzgar, ‘Kristof has a strong understanding of what moves and upsets his readers. His focus on the most desperate situations is painful to experience first-hand. It reeks of morbidity, but if one can overcome one’s knee-jerk emotional reactions, then one can begin to appreciate Kristof’s cold calculus.’
For Metzgar and his team, experiencing Kristof’s stories first-hand was more than they initially fathomed. After driving into one of the most dangerous villages of Congo to interview rebel leader, Laurent Nkunda, the group is persuaded to stay after sunset (having been heavily warned against driving at night) for a dinner in their honor. Choking on their nervousness, the crew obliges in the face of a ring of machine-gun-toting rebels and quietly packs away their cameras and notebooks.
Reporter screens on May 4th and May 6th at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.