New York Times reporter Nicholas D. Kristof is walking through an impoverished village in central Africa. Little kids are swarming up to him, flies on their faces, bellies distended. The director of Reporter, Eric Daniel Metzgar, says in voice over, “Kristof is here for one reason: to make you care about what’s on the other side of that hill.” Whether that’s a starving child, an adult wracked with disease, or a village slaughtered by a warlord, Kristof wants his readers — wants the world — to pay attention. And to help.
This curious documentary is operating on multiple levels in a way that few films do, with the heartbreaking stories and lead character on one level, the various tragedies they all represent on another level, and superseding it all the very idea of journalism, the role of the reporter in advocacy, and humanity’s ability to care and to act.
Reporter follows Kristof through many of the most dangerous and devastated places in the world: Darfur, the Congo, Afghanistan, and more. In each setting, we learn a little bit about the local tragedy: in Pakistan voters have been murdered by the opposition party, and for coming to tell their story, the locals chant “American Journalist — Long Live!” In the Congo, a murderous warlord tries to charm Kristof into casting a positive light on his cause. (“Warlords are happy to be interviewed, and surprisingly easy to get in touch with via email,” Kristof *remarked.) But never is the film truly about any of these tragic situations.
Kristof is the central character of the film, the moral force in these various tragedies, but the real focus of the film is his intellectual struggle to make journalism matter. Unsettling studies Kristof and Metzgar cite have proven that readers are more likely to donate to a cause if framed around an individual. In fact, in one study, when shown a picture of a starving little girl, most people will agree to make a donation to help her. When the photo includes the little girl and a little boy, less people are likely to donate. And if the photo is accompanied by an explanation of the causes of her starvation, and statistics about thousands or millions of starving people, donors are even less likely to give.
So Kristof searches the tormented landscapes for an individual who can represent the tragedy to a distant and hardened readership. He can appear callous finding a sick person and seeking someone more sick, or listening to someone talk about murders and asking if there’s someone who actually lost a parent or a child. But Kristof is simply operating on a cold calculus, a utilitarian attempt to serve the greatest number of people. Occasionally, he crosses a line of journalistic ethics and gets involved in helping someone, which he described after the film as “very unprofessional, but something I’m extremely proud of.” Still, usually, Kristof can’t provide direct relief to the people who he’s trying to rescue. The sad irony, of course, being that in his attempts to get people to care about millions, Kristof must focus on individuals who are beyond help.
It’s not our fault that we feel the way we do, Metzgar said in the Q&A. It’s not our fault that we act on behalf of one person but are unmoved by the plight of one million. But, Metzgar pleaded, “it’s time to transcend our wiring.” His film aims to help us understand our mental weakness, and following the screening Kristof outlined a brilliantly simple and inspiring approach: “Pick one issue. You don’t have to do everything, just find one cause that matters to you. Become an expert. Get involved. Because if you think you’re going to solve the whole problem, you’ll be overwhelmed. And you probably can’t do it. But if you get involved on a grassroots level, and make it your goal just to make a difference, you’ll succeed. Studies have been done about unhappiness. And it turns out that things people think will make them happy, like winning the lottery, they rarely make people happy. And things that people think will make them unhappy, like some accident, they rarely affect people as badly as they expect. But the one thing that has been proven to make people happy is getting involved in a cause larger than yourself.”
(For another interesting take on war in Africa and Westerner’s ability to witness, engage, and help, read my review of Johnny Mad Dog, too.)
– Mark Elijah Rosenberg, Founder & Artistic Director of Rooftop Films
* All quotes are paraphrased to the best of my note-taking abilities.