Last Men in Aleppo

By Caitlin Kelly

If you haven’t yet seen this documentary about the White Helmets — a volunteer group that races to the scene of attacks in Syria — it’s a must.

It won the Sundance World Cinema Grand Jury Prize in 2017; Sundance (for those not into film) is considered the U.S.’s most prestigious annual film festival.

I saw it last night.

But it’s not an easy 104 minutes, and I found myself crying this morning as I thought through all the images and sounds it contains:

— a father weeping as his six-year-old son is pulled, dead, from beneath the rubble

— the terrifying sight and sound of a rainfall of incoming bombs

— a car on fire with two civilians in it

— the hammering of an excavator trying to unearth the latest victims

— the challenge of not having enough body bags for all the corpses and body parts they encounter

— the men trying to decide — by looking at a foot they found — whether it’s one of their friends.

It is a searing and unsparing look at daily life in hell.

You can buy it here for $14.99.

And yet, and yet, the director, Feras Fayyad, was wise to also include much laughter and joy, the men singing and even taking a sunny, if brief, day out in the playground, with a bunch of their delighted little kids, to leaven the brutality.

It’s too easy to think we know this place or to not care about it — but here’s a little girl and her Dad going to six Aleppo pharmacies to try to find vitamins because her hands are now weakened by malnutrition. There are none to be found.

Here’s a couple going to get married, in the middle of death and destruction.

Here’s the men buying a bag full of goldfish, perhaps the most unlikely purchase imaginable in what is basically a war zone, combing the city to find enough water and then filling a fountain with fish and water.

With hope.

That’s reporting.

Here’s a brief video clip of Fayyad — who was twice imprisoned and tortured — discussing why he made the film.

To bear witness.

As a journalist in New York, I get invited daily to events meant to promote new products and services, hotels and restaurants. I ignore 99.9 percent of them.

But I’ve long been deeply intrigued by the White Helmets and their work.

Not even sure how I ended up on this press list — as the room was filled with industry folk being asked to vote as Academy members on its merits — but I’m so glad I had the chance to see it, and a brief Q and A in the room with its director, who is now making a second film about a female doctor working there, and having to sneak back into his own country to do so safely.

My father made documentaries for a living, so I’m fascinated — both as a journalist and a lover of film — by how and when these stories are filmed and told.

I’ve read a lot about the war in Syria, and knew of the White Helmets, but never viscerally understood what they do, why they do it and the tremendous physical and emotional toll if takes.

I urge you to see it!

 

 

One woman’s life reporting on Syria — for $70 per story

By Caitlin Kelly

English: Bastion of the Citadel of Aleppo, Syr...
English: Bastion of the Citadel of Aleppo, Syria Français : Bastion de la citadelle d’Alep, Syrie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This story, from the Columbia Journalism Review, is going viral among my journalist/writer/foreign correspondent friends.

It is written by Francesca Borri, an Italian woman who has been reporting from Syria as a freelancer:

People have this romantic image of the freelancer as a journalist who’s
exchanged the certainty of a regular salary for the freedom to cover the
stories she is most fascinated by. But we aren’t free at all; it’s just
the opposite. The truth is that the only job opportunity I have today
is staying in Syria, where nobody else wants to stay. And it’s not even
Aleppo, to be precise; it’s the frontline. Because the editors back in
Italy only ask us for the blood, the bang-bang. I write about the
Islamists and their network of social services, the roots of their
power—a piece that is definitely more complex to build than a frontline
piece. I strive to explain, not just to move, to touch, and I am
answered with: “What’s this? Six thousand words and nobody died?”

….

But whether you’re writing from Aleppo or Gaza or Rome, the editors
see no difference. You are paid the same: $70 per piece. Even in places
like Syria, where prices triple because of rampant speculation. So, for
example, sleeping in this rebel base, under mortar fire, on a mattress
on the ground, with yellow water that gave me typhoid, costs $50 per
night; a car costs $250 per day. So you end up maximizing, rather than
minimizing, the risks. Not only can you not afford insurance—it’s
almost $1,000 a month—but you cannot afford a fixer or a translator.
You find yourself alone in the unknown. The editors are well aware that
$70 a piece pushes you to save on everything…But they buy your
article anyway, even if they would never buy the Nike soccer ball
handmade by a Pakistani child.

With new communication technologies there is this temptation to
believe that speed is information. But it is based on a self-destructive
logic: The content is now standardized, and your newspaper, your
magazine, no longer has any distinctiveness, and so there is no reason
to pay for the reporter. I mean, for the news, I have the Internet—and
for free. The crisis today is of the media, not of the readership.
Readers are still there, and contrary to what many editors believe, they
are bright readers who ask for simplicity without simplification. They
want to understand, not simply to know. Every time I publish an
eyewitness account from the war, I get a dozen emails from people who
say, “Okay, great piece, great tableaux, but I want to understand what’s going on in Syria.”

Many kinds of reporting, especially war reporting, (and photography and video and audio) — must be done firsthand.

It can’t be done, contrary to the fantasies of some journalism students who have to be shoved out of their classrooms into the world to talk to real people face to face, by Googling everything!

It’s often terrifying and exhausting. It often leaves the journalists (and their fixers and translators) who do it with PTSD; the terrific Dart Center helps them heal after such work.

Great reporting, of the sort Borri is doing and describing, is damn dangerous. It killed legendary American reporter Marie Colvin. It killed legendary New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid, who died — of all things — of an asthma attack in reaction to the dander of the horses he needed to ride to get into Syria.

The photographer with him, Tyler Hicks, as soldiers expect to do and reporters do not, carried his dead body back to civilization.

We cannot, must not ever accept, only the official/sanitized/biased reports offered up by the military or rebels or the government or corporate flacks.

Everyone, everywhere has an agenda.

The reporter’s primary job is to witness, describe, analyze, explain. They/we are more essential than ever in a world of spin , sound bites and soi-disant journalists who “publish” their point of view without an ounce of training or ethics.

But risking your life for $70 a story? It’s a fucking obscenity. Her editors and publishers should be ashamed of their cheapness — I bet they blow that much money each week on their morning espressos.

I do admire her spirit and her dedication.

Would you do it?

What do you think of her choice?