Absorbing and Conveying Disasters
(speech presented at the Conference on The Vagaries of Fate)
When I first wrote about and filmed my news reports from war zones - about the war between Georgia and Abkhasia, tanks firing upon the Russian Parliament in Moscow, and the initial assault upon the Chechen capital of Grozny - I thought then, rather naively, that the public would be aghast when reading about or seeing this carnage. That they would get a lump in their throats and be prompted to immediately make a donation to a humanitarian cause. Today I know better.
I was convinced that concentrated scenes of disaster, so easily filmed or written about, would strongly affect the public as it did us, the journalists who were covering the war. I had no idea as people watched these actual events on television that their screens would act as a protective shield; or while reading about the deaths of thousands, a reader’s conscience could be soothed by the rustling of a newspaper page.
Immediately following a news program that has shown clips of a city and its population being bombarded, an American film is aired in which even more blood is shed, and more dead bodies described in greater detail; admittedly, all the heartbreaking scenes were filmed in a far more artful manner. Yet the visual differences between reality and fiction and between a newscast and adventure film are very slight; a viewer will cover his eyes when watching filmed horrors of a mass murderer, while when seeing mass graves in Chechnya, shot without repulsive details, they’ll calmly sit and munch potato chips.
Showing shocking news today has become very difficult, primarily because everyone is so sated with hearing about foreign disasters and tragedies. Day in and day out, as we see and read about all the cruelty and violence going on everywhere, we remain under the illusion that because it is all so faraway it’s not worth getting upset about. So we seek out entertainment, which is intended to only slightly upset us. As long as people live in a country that hasn’t experienced war in decades, they don’t feel imminently threatened and so are detached from tragedies that occur in far off places. Everyone is concerned with their own problems, their neighbors’ problems, their country, and the continent in which they live. The further away one is from tragedy, the more one is isolated from these horrors, and thus any interest in wanting to help diminishes.
Obviously the goal of all journalists is to get information, be it in battles or behind front lines, in any way they can, but they also want to give some thought to the personal part they play in these tragedies. So they resort to using various means like thinking up different courses of action, speaking louder into the mike, filming crying children in the foreground, and interviewing recently wounded victims.
But once in awhile, the misfortunes of others is conveyed in such a way that it does affect the recipients of these reports. (Although I have yet to discover the right key to use in opening up people’s hearts.) Whenever that happens----providing they hear of it since they’re physically so far removed from their readers----journalists heave a sigh of relief. Relieved they could share all their pent up sorrows for being unable to do practically nothing about preventing anything. The journalist can say to himself that the mother whose child just died and whom he forced to stand by the body, urging her to cry on camera would forgive him. For thanks to him, she was able to share her sorrow with millions of people; and out of all those millions, several hundreds of aroused and angry citizens would take to the streets the next day to protest the killing of innocent civilians. Or perhaps one or two presidents would become alarmed at the force of this public outcry arising from the incident of the weeping mother, and communicate to the antagonists the necessity to stop fighting. Or that one of the two warring sides would begin peace talks, or perhaps be more mindful when bombing cities so that less children be killed.
Just imagine that you witnessed a murder, and the murderer gave you a certain kind of immunity that allowed you to observe and even film him, but without any attempts on your part to defend the victim. In 1998 I was witness to two public executions in the Druzhby Narodov Square in Grozny. I was in absolutely no danger. It was an official act decreed by the Shariah Court and the Chechen President Aslan Mashkadov. The firing squad stepped forward and we journalists were told to line up in a row, but in such a way that we could easily film the happening. I had this odd feeling that one of the two women about to be shot was staring directly at me, the lone female among all male journalists, as if expecting me to do something. Perhaps that I, as a foreigner and journalist with certain privileges, might put in a word on her behalf to President Mashkadov; or that I might even step between the guns and the pole to which she was tied. But none of us did anything. Nor would it have made any sense if we did, certainly not to the victims. I often wonder though if for us, as individuals, it would have made sense to oppose this cruelty.
Later on I made a film about this called, “Execution as a Public Issue” and came to the realization that not one person who was there ever shared his feelings or emotions with me. No one ever asked whether I tried to influence or prevent this act from taking place. Frankly I must admit that I was rather glad, as I didn’t need anyone messing around with my conscience. But now with the distance of time, I’m a little amazed that no one grabbed the film and hit me over the head with it. Yet when I show this film at various affairs people, as a rule, ask me why the executioners didn’t take better aim when firing so that both criminals were killed instantly (they lived at least 15 minutes longer), and whether there were relatives or friends among the onlookers.
I often wonder whether I should have refused to film this incident, but then console myself that if not I, someone else would have done it; and the execution would have taken place anyway. And by filming it, I was able to make a strong statement against similar practices, against such a cavalier attitude about people’s lives, be they criminals, soldiers, women or children. Except this thinking has one flaw. After seeing my film, people either expressed sympathy or asked how I was able to stand watching the women’s facial expressions without getting sick to my stomach.
But no one ever asked why I did nothing to guard against my being there. And so they felt sorry for me; because they know me, because I’m from the same neighborhood and am very much like one of their neighbors. Although they watched, on screen, that a Chechen woman being shot in front of their eyes, to them she was somewhat remote, unreal and more elusive than a heroine in a screen epic.
Several years later some of my war correspondent colleagues and I had a discussion about whether it was professional attitude that led us into these situations, or a desire to become famous through exclusive actions. And should we even bother thinking about it. In 1995 one of the journalists, who shall remain nameless, filmed a particularly shocking episode about a four-year-old boy that Nino Kirtadze, a Georgian filmmaker and good friend of mine, later used in her film “Chechen Lullaby.”
The cameraman happened to catch a child standing in the central square of Grozny, in the midst of a carpet bombing that had killed his father. The boy’s face was covered in blood and it was obvious that he felt helpless standing alone among all the hysterical people, dead bodies, wrecked buildings and burnt out cars. He was in shock and crying at the top of his lungs. He was looking for someone to lead him to safety------and chose our cameraman. He began running towards him with outstretched arms, shouting directly into the camera, “Uncle, uncle, take me, take me.” But this “uncle,” with his camera still rolling, slowly started backing away and was effectively leaving the child.
This is a well-known incident and often repeated among war correspondents. It’s interesting to note that it never dawned on any viewer that this child might have been spared several minutes of utter helplessness and fright; he was in shock and needed immediate help. However, had the cameraman quit filming and taken the boy into his arms, he would never have gotten this footage. I reassure myself that this film just may have stirred people up, that it just may have aroused antiwar revulsion in the hearts and minds of all those who saw it. I honestly don’t know what is more important----helping one little boy or trying, albeit at his expense, to awaken the conscience of the world.
Not long afterward I was in somewhat of a similar situation myself. I had been riding with some Russian soldiers on their armoured personnel carrier when we went over an anti-tank mine. Both the camera and I survived, but one of the soldiers was not so lucky. I watched him being pulled out of the depths of the vehicle and seeing that his legs had been blown off, I immediately turned my camera on. I recall precisely that in order to remain calm and not panic, I focused all my attention on which camera buttons to push, how to adjust for sharpness and to get the right shading, all the while hoping no one would step in front of me and block the view of the solder’s stumps, which was all that remained of his legs.
When I phoned the Prague television station and described the incident I had filmed, my colleagues were elated, and said that it was terrific. Yet in the end they decided not to televise the worst clips of all---those showing the death of the soldier. They felt it would sicken the viewers, especially as this newscast always comes on during the dinner hour. And because this horrible event would now only remain in my mind and in my files, and that no one ever saw it, seemed to me, as well as the journalists, that this soldier had died in vain.
Maybe I should have tossed my camera aside and tried to stem the flow of blood. But because we’re never able to properly convey death and disaster, these calamities become pointless for us. Moreover, if we are unable to convey our feelings in a way that the public can share our emotions, can feel both revulsion and disgust and want to do something about it, that they’d be upset enough to start searching their conscience, then our work becomes pointless; and so chasing after sensationalism becomes amateurish, and only helps to heal one’s own inferiority complex.
Recently my colleague and good friend, Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky, and I held an all night gabfest about what lies ahead for us. Whether we, through live broadcasts, had been engaged all these years in something that degraded us, as being seen as corpse collectors and hunters after death in live broadcast. Our arguments became so heated and tempestuous that in order to prevent smashing all the dishes and furniture in his flat, we decided to stop talking and put pen to paper instead. So we sat approximately two meters apart, writing letters to one another and drinking endless cups of coffee that his wife, Ludmila, supplied us with. And now I should like to quote part of one of Andrei’s last letters to me:
“How does one suppress an aching soul and eliminate all feelings? Are we not partially responsible for the destiny of those we personally encountered and siphoned out their stories, which we later sold, and then boasted that because we were able to understood their pain we could communicate it to others? “
I think these words precisely explain the dilemma felt by a large part of the wartime journalists. When faced with other people’s tragedies they never cloaked themselves in total ignorance nor felt degraded by conveying gruesome news just because it was their job and they were getting well paid for it.
Actually, war correspondents are like huge nets in which they catch sundry events, and only those incidents they think are the saddest, most painful, most shocking, and the most exciting are allowed to flow through. And all the rest that remains trapped in our nets stays deeply rooted inside of us, like the residue that is forever embedded within the lungs of a heavy smoker. A journalist’s objective, of course, isn’t just to awaken people’s sense of responsibility for catastrophes they had no part in. It’s also to earn a living, to become famous, well known, and to secure professional standing; and even to experience extraordinary adventures that elevate ones adrenalin level. Otherwise, we are frequently accused of being bloodthirsty and longing for wartime romances. (Partly true.)
Nevertheless, the majority of us have not escaped having our souls and bodies branded, not only by what we’ve seen, but what has personally touched us. Because we can easily stand the sight of blood and mutilated bodies, we may have become inured to tragedy; we don’t cry at children’s funerals, even while watching their mothers lie down in the graves, wanting to be buried alongside them. We don’t cry because our range finders would fog up. It doesn’t mean, however, that these tragedies are not planted somewhere deep inside of us. But there is one cure for this: by sharing and passing along these tragedies through our writing, we compel you to read about them, which then sets us free.
Michal Kubal and Martin Jazairi, Czech television commentators reporting on the Iraqi war, come across on the screen as icily calm, but it doesn’t mean that they, themselves, are calm; they’re only behaving professionally. I know them both quite well and am aware that reporting about areas where civilians are getting killed causes these men a similar dilemma as it did for my friend, Andrei Babitsky. I am forever asking myself the question he posed: “Can we really boast that because we are able to understand people’s pain, we can communicate it to others?”
Prague Watchdog thanks Petra Procházková for granting us the right to publish the text on our website.