Behind the scenes of war reporting at Berlin's Human Rights Film Festival

Films and panels at the Human Rights Film Festival look into the work of reporters in conflict zones. From legendary foreign correspondent Marie Colvin to citizen journalists, here's how war reporting is changing.


War correspondent Marie Colvin, instantly recognizable with her trademark eye patch, died in February 2012 while stationed in Homs, reporting on the Syrian regime's attacks on the besieged enclave of Baba Amr.


The charismatic, award-winning Sunday Times reporter was lauded for her courage throughout her lifetime, and her legend only grew after her death, with various biographies and films celebrating her fearless reporting and larger-than-life personality.


They include the documentary Under the Wire, shown at the Human Rights Film Festival in Berlin. In it, photojournalist Paul Conroy, who was injured in the attack that killed Colvin and only miraculously survived it, tells the story of his last mission with her, along with other collaborators such as Sean Ryan, then a foreign editor at the Sunday Times. Ryan was a guest speaker at the film festival.


"She had this zeal for bearing witness to atrocities in war," Sean Ryan told DW. "She believed that if she did that, it would act as a deterrent and that the bad people doing these things would be less likely to do them."


Filming attacks while the baby is sleeping in the next room


Also hoping to obtain the support of the international community, Waad al-Kateab started filming the protests in Aleppo early on as a citizen journalist. She reveals her story in For Sama, co-directed by al-Kateab and Edward Watts. It was the opening film of the Human Rights Film Festival.


The documentary begins in the chaos of an attack, with people running for shelter in a basement. A woman, the mother of an infant called Sama, grabs her camera to film the events, asking other people to take care of the baby as she runs off towards the explosion.


When the attack turns out to be more destructive than expected, the camerawoman worries about what happened to her child. The initial reaction of the viewer is to wonder why a baby is in the middle of all this. In her film dedicated to Sama, Waad al-Kateab explains to her child — and the viewers — why she actively decided to keep her in that dangerous context.


Rewinding to the beginning of the uprising in Aleppo, we discover the revolutionary hopes of the young woman and other university students. They believed that their peaceful protests would rid the country of Assad's dictatorial regime.


She then fell in love with a co-activist, Hamza al-Kateab. They got married and Waad became pregnant shortly afterwards.


The activists felt there was still hope for a new Syria at the time, but the conflict kept brutally escalating. Hamza and Waad were by then central figures in the movement. As a doctor, he had established a makeshift hospital in the rebel stronghold, while her videos were being watched millions of times around the world. Keeping Sama with them strengthened their convictions.


From star foreign correspondents to citizen journalists


From the Syrians' hopeful demonstrations during the Arab Spring to the regime's brutal bombings killing children and innocent civilians, the timeline of events in For Sama echoes those in Under the Wire. Despite his years of experience in conflict zones, photographer Paul Convoy points out in Under the Wire that what he'd seen in Syria couldn't even be described as war: "It's slaughter." The violent images in For Sama confirm this impression.


But beyond the similarity in facts, the two films not only contrast in their style, they also reflect the evolution of war reporting. Whereas Under the Wire centers on a star foreign correspondent whose idealism is linked to personal ambition, For Sama tells the story of an activist who finds meaning in an evolving nightmare by becoming a citizen journalist.


For Sama is clearly the result of a long editing process to shape raw material into a powerful human story. That distinguishes the film from content provided by citizen journalists to be used quickly to report from an isolated war zone. As Sean Ryan points out, the problem with this material is that it is difficult for editors to authenticate it without knowing how trustworthy their sources are. 


The former foreign editor sees another difficulty in the fact that citizen journalists cannot have the same type of global impact as established names in journalism, which was one of Marie Colvin's strengths. 


Most notably, in East Timor in 1999, Colvin refused to leave a besieged compound where some 1,500 women and children were trapped. UN officials said that her international reporting was instrumental in rescuing these people: "From that moment on, she felt that her work could not only bear witness to atrocity but could also save lives," says Ryan.


As much as her reporting in East Timor can be quoted as a source of empowerment and inspiration for journalists, the death of Marie Colvin and other journalists has also scared news outlets off from sending correspondents to conflicts zones. That leaves the field open to freelancers, who are exposed to even more risks without the protection of established news outlets.


Beyond the state of emergency


Francesca Mannocchi, co-director of ISIS, Tomorrow – The Lost Souls of Mosul, was also at the Human Rights Film Festival to discuss her work. At a panel on work in conflict zones, she offered insight into her own perspective on war reporting.


Her documentary ISIS, Tomorrow explores the situation in Mosul, Iraq, after the defeat of the Islamic State terrorist organization. Through interviews with children who were either recruited by ISIS or others who lost their families in the conflict, one realizes that the seeds of terror are still present among those children and widows. "ISIS is just a logo," Mannocch says. "It might change names, but the ideology will continue."


Mannocchi says that her perspective on reporting conflicts has changed through projects such as this documentary: "One of the mistakes of our ways of doing journalism is that we turn off the camera once the conflict is over," she told DW.


"Everything in the news is always presented as an emergency, as if it has come out of nowhere, without any connections with the past and the future," she says.


She believes that investigating the complexity of post-war situations is necessary if one is to go beyond the stereotypes established by the media. It is also potentially a way to avoid repeating policy mistakes.


Mannocchi feels that with its focus on the "emergencies," the media avoids looking into the complexity of the issues — thus giving an advantage to Islamists: "When will we learn something from the past? Because they did," she says, referring to past developments such as the US withdrawal from Iraq without a proper plan, and how the IS quickly established a pool of 20,000 supporters within less than four years.


"As a journalist, I attempt to link the dots," said. "But my goal is not to give easy answers. I want to transmit the same doubts and dilemmas I experience on the ground."






PUKmedia / DW

21/9/2019 22:09:00