Reporter (2009) D: Eric Daniel Metzgar


Reporter opens with a ‘stroll’ through what looks like a green African plain and a voice over that explains the film’s purpose is to make the viewer ‘care about what is over that ridge’. What is over the ridge is an abandoned village strewn with the remnants of destruction, disease and death. The villagers, we soon learn, have been driven off their land by one of the 14 warring militias of the Congo.

Director Eric Daniel Metzgar is following the journey of New York Times Pulitzer winning journalist Nicholas Kristof as he takes two competition winners (a young medical student and an inner city English teacher) on a trip to the Congo to see the effects of the war in that province first-hand and to interview one of the leaders of the militias – the warlord Nkunda.

Nkunda is equal parts Huey P Newton and Atilla the Hun, it would seem, and the imposing General sees himself as a liberator of the people, rather than the despotic warlord as which he believes he is painted. The tension being felt by Kristof and his companions in the presence of Nkunda and his forces is palpable. Unsure of whether they can return safely from their journey after nightfall, the fear grows when they’re asked to dine.

Also palpable is Kristof’s cold professional detachment. He seems immune to the suffering around him as he searches for one individual story, the worst he can find, to make readers of his column care. The point made in Reporter is that by a process it calls Psychic Numbing, people’s empathy for a situation begins to degrade as soon as we’re asked to care about more than one person. Were we to consider the scope of four million dead from the Congolese wars, the film postulates, we could not feel at all. It’s this one person for whom Kristof is searching. He finds her in the form of an ex-teacher / land owner who has been raped and impregnated and driven off her land into starvation by Nkunda’s men. They find the woman in tremendous pain from infected bed sores and dying for want of anything but bananas to eat for months.

The clash between Kristof’s detachment and the compassionate ethics of the young medical student accounts for much of the tension in the film not related to imminent danger. So much so that the earnest inner city teacher gets merely a token look in. The medical student wants to save every individual she finds, while Nicholas insists that the way to go is make the world fix them all, even if others die in the meantime.

In the end, the documentary is problematic. While it shows the great humanitarian work of Kristof, it also shows a cynical and seemingly conservative ideology on his behalf. It feels at times like Kristof wants us to care about ‘what’s over that ridge’ so that he doesn’t have to – and so he can reap the rewards of another Pulitzer. Reporter, never-the-less is a fascinating and eye-opening document of a (for most of us) far-away war and the people whom it has displaced and destroyed.

A startling illustration of extreme destitution and journalistic objectivity – 4 stars


~ by mfnm on July 19, 2010.

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