On the frontlines of inhumanity: Reporter documentary digs deep and wide

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If you've ever doubted the merits of journalism or the need for investigative reporting, I encourage you to run to the screening of Reporter at this year's Hot Docs festival in Toronto.


This 90-minute film, by Eric Daniel Metzgar, follows two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof as he heads into The Democratic Republic of the Congo and attempts to uncover a story that will resonate with the American people.


Congo -- ravaged by civil war for more than a decade -- has lost 5.4 million souls to the crisis. Yet it continues and 45,000 people die every month from the effects of this war (starvation, disease, displacement etc...).


Kristof, who joined the New York Times in 1984, waxes philosophical about the nature of reporting and what kind of stories affect the audience but this is no navel-gazing effort, trust me.


This intrepid storyteller captured his first Pulitzer in 1990 with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, also a Times reporter, for their coverage of China's Tiananmen Square Democracy movement. He garnered his second prize in 2006 for a commentary on Darfur.


At the heart of this film is the premise that one death is a tragedy while a million deaths is a statistic. The truth has already been born out by a recent study that discovered people are more likely to give donations when told of a story of one human being suffering rather than of hundreds of thousands.


While the first 30 minutes or so are a bit didactic -- with a director's voiceover -- the remaining hour is worth sticking with.


It's revealed that Kristof resorts to writing about "saving the Darfur puppy" in an attempt to keep pressure on the world to stop the atrocities in that region. He is the one credited for bringing the Darfur mess to light but four years later, sadly, it is Kristof who expresses skepticism that anything will be done to stop it.


Kristof writes columns, but not from his office chair. He chooses a crisis somewhere and goes to the source -- venturing to more than 140 countries. It is from this eye witness/reportage experience that he writes his columns.


Remarkable now considering the cutbacks in newspapers and the move towards blogging and cheap talking head TV shows (by the way, in the good news department, the Huffington Post has created a new investigative journalism fund and will be picking from the corps of laid-off reporters to delve into big issues).


"Stirring the pot is not enough," notes Kristof. "It's not what journalism is about. You need to effect change."


The film gets rolling when Kristof takes two young Americans with him on a trip to Africa. The two civilians -- a medical student and a teacher from Chicago -- are winners of a contest that Kristof cooked up as a way of trying to engage a younger generation. The pair are also required to keep up a blog while they accompany Kristof on his mission. The film focuses on their trip to Congo.


What unravels before the cameras is gripping and unforgettable. Kristof finds that one human being for his column -- a woman who is starving and suffering from ulcerative infections on her body. Through her, we get a glimpse of how much the Congolese are suffering.


Once a school teacher, with a savings in the bank and a small farm, she was raped and then displaced. No man will marry her and therefore, there was no one to take of her after she fell and hurt herself. When Kristof and his young Americans discover her, she is a bag of bones and screaming in agony. She tells them she has eaten bananas now for four months. Watch the movie to find out what happens.


Then, there is an unnerving meeting with a local warlord -- a pastor and a Tutsi from Rwanda who calls himself a "liberator."


Kristof gets to interview a child soldier, who looks barely 12. When asked whether he thinks it is his right to rape during an attack, this little boy replies: "If it's war, you can rape them." His additional remarks are equally astounding and you can see that even Kristoff -- a battle-weary reporter -- is taken aback.


Amazingly, as Kristof goes about his business of asking questions such as: When were you raped? or, Do you plan to keep the child?, he keeps digging and ploughing -- searching for that elusive story that would seem so horrific as to move an audience of readers.


"I can listen dispassionately to the most inhumane stories," admits Kristof.


He also reveals that victims are as unreliable as those perpetrating the atrocities. It seems, no one can be trusted.


If you don't get to see Reporter, I would have to point out one lesson in all of this -- where there is no security, there is little use in building schools or providing food and medicines.


At the end of the tour of duty, Leana Wen, the medical student, says her eyes are now opened wide: "I felt a lot of despair but I still feel hope in the end."


Similarly, Kristof says he just keeps doing what he's doing because he can still hold on to hope.


That's when you realize the vital importance of solid investigative journalism.


You keep going into the darkness to find the light of truth.


N.B. Reporter screens on May 4 (9:45 p.m. at the Bader) and on May 6 (4:30 p.m. at the ROM). Equally compelling is Burma VJ, which chronicles the incredible reportage done by undercover VJs in the closed country.


I feel the need to mention another fabulous film -- City of Borders (Dir. Yun Suh ), playing May 3 at 3:45 p.m. and May 4 at 9:30 p.m., both times at the Cumberland -- a finely-crafted documentary examining the gay movement in Israel and the West Bank. That is just one facet of this entrancing, layered documentary.


One of the most polished I've seen in a long time.As for Canadian films - John Greyson's evocative and inventive AIDS activism history lesson, Fig Trees, is a gorgeously-shot "opera doc" and Laura Bari's Antoine will immerse you in the fantastical world of a blind, 6-year-old Montreal boy.


The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival starts April 30 and ends on May 10, 2009. Among the highlights is a look back at the films of Canadian directors Ron Mann and Alanis Obomsawin as well as a spotlight on the NFB, which turns 70 this year. Check the listings for an updated schedule.

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