In Conversation with Eric Daniel Metzgar

Originally published by The Brooklyn Rail

Reporter begins in a place you’ve probably never been, identified only as “Central Africa.” A group of children run up a muddy trail, turning every so often to check that the camera is still following. A narrator explains, “Walking behind me and my small film crew is Nicholas Kristof, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for New York Times. He’s here with a single objective: to make you care about what’s just over the hill. But this won’t be easy.” Thus director Eric Daniel Metzgar establishes the central problem of his stunning documentary, a problem he will probe from many angles for the next 90 minutes.

Watching Reporter, it is easy to understand why this Brooklyn-based filmmaker has been hailed as the most unique and talented young documentarian in America. Like the other two films directed, shot, edited, and narrated by Metzgar (The Chances of the World Changing, 2006, and Life. Support. Music, 2008), Reporter is marked by Metzgar’s thoughtful narration, gorgeous cinematography, and emotional acuity.

The film follows Kristof on a harrowing trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a brutal war has resulted in over 5.4 million deaths since 1998. Despite the world’s largest and most expensive United Nations peacekeeping mission, the instability and resulting litany of horrors has only increased in recent years. Kristof is in Congo to make us care, to put it on the international agenda, and to help end the atrocities. Metzgar is in Congo to make a work of art, to observe Kristof and his journalistic method, and to open up a series of questions that could change the way you think about…well, everything. More than a portrait of a heroic journalist, and more than an impassioned plea for humanitarian aid, Reporter elevates our understanding of human nature itself.

Eric Daniel Metzgar will present a special screening of Reporter on December 13 7:30 pm, at Anthology Film Archives. This event is hosted by Flaherty NYC, a monthly series of risk-taking documentary films sponsored by The Flaherty Seminar.

Penny Lane (Rail): How did you come to make Reporter?

Eric Daniel Metzgar: The idea of the film came from the producer, Mikaela Beardsley, who asked me if I would direct and shoot. It took a little convincing because it sounded like a pretty dangerous trip. But she won me over. The initial idea of the film was to start shooting when we hit the ground in Africa and stop shooting when we left. I envisioned a very raw, verité film. And I cut that film when I got back home. But it was hard to follow because Nick’s interviews presume that you already have a basic understanding of the Rwandan genocide and how it spilled into Congo, and all the various militias running around the region. Also, it took me a long time to understand what Nick was up to. [Without context], the film played as Nick dashing from one village to the next asking really brutal and personal questions. So I started to insert some narration. In reading more about Nick and his methods, I came across the idea of psychic numbing, and it seemed like the perfect thread [to tie the film together], and a way to help describe the impetus behind Nick’s work.

Rail: What is psychic numbing?

Metzgar: Psychic numbing, generally speaking, is that idea that we become numbed in the face of suffering, particularly large-scale suffering. This is a real problem for human rights groups in particular, because many of them think that by splashing a horrible statistic across their webpage they can make us all jump off the couch and do something. And it’s been proven again and again that it doesn’t work. Nick pointed me to a fascinating study by Paul Slovic that I ended up including in the film. People were shown a picture of a little girl named Rokia and asked to donate real money to Save the Children in three different scenarios. First, they were shown a picture of the girl alone; second, they were shown statistics describing the widespread starvation in the region; third, they were shown Rokia’s photo accompanied by the statistics. People overwhelmingly gave more money when they were shown the picture alone, with no statistics. This says a lot about how piles of information can really turn us off, and how we react and respond emotionally to the [idea of a] single victim. Ultimately, that’s what Nick is trying to do. He’s walking this fine line of trying to get us to care about specific individuals suffering in conflict areas, but at the same time he wants us to understand and respond to the systemic problems, not just channel all our money to a particular individual. It’s a real challenge, and a fascinating challenge.

Rail: Was it difficult to work with the material? Was it hard to sit, wherever you sit, and edit these images?

Metzgar: Yes, this film was really…it was really quite difficult. Because the suffering is so…the suffering that Nick escorted us through…you just can’t hide from it. There were definitely scenes that I procrastinated editing. I would know that a certain scene needed more work, but I just couldn’t handle hearing that woman scream another time. I didn’t want her screaming in my home. I felt I couldn’t handle it one more time. And then I’d feel guilty about that. Yet, of course, I had an obligation to finish the film. And, of course, I needed to know that there was a purpose for my having been there, pointing a camera at this woman, intruding on her life while she was starving and suffering in such agony. Ultimately, you want to make sure the film you are creating is impactful and meaningful and respectful of her life. And at some point a film becomes a film. It stops being just a collection of footage, and starts to have a life of its own. That motivates you, too; to help [the film] fulfill its potential as a piece of art. When that starts to happen, then even the worst, most painful footage to watch starts to have a purpose within this larger whole, and starts to make sense. And then it feels a little better.

Rail: Kristof’s mission is to find ways to make me care about atrocities happening in distant lands to people I don’t know. Did that mission become your mission in making Reporter?

Metzgar: I would say that it definitely became part of my mission, in the grand scheme of things. But Nick is very deliberate about what he’s doing. He’s trying to have a measurable impact and, ultimately, to relieve suffering in the world. And for that, he is a hero of mine. Absolutely a hero. However, I approach the notion of “making an impact” from the perspective of an artist, where impacts are far more difficult to measure. To me, the world is a vast and incredibly confusing place. So for me, making documentaries is a matter of organizing a lot of really confusing situations into something that I can make sense of. For example, you watch a person suffering, you learn why they are suffering, and hopefully you learn what you can do to help. That’s one thing a film can do. But documentary films also have the capacity to work as art; that is, to affect you in some way that can’t be described. I tend to like films that are more mysterious, in which you’re not specifically told what to do or what to think. Instead, you’re left psychologically agitated in some way. Maybe you end up sort of haunted, and you can’t rationalize or talk your way out of it, because you don’t even know what “it” is. You’re just caught, and you have to change something in your mind to move forward. That’s what I think good art can do. Good art shifts something inside of you.

Rail: You’ve just described very nicely the mysterious impact all three of your films have had on me. Thank you for explaining to me what you’ve been doing to me all these years.

Metzgar: You’re welcome. [Laughs.]

Rail: The film does a good job of exploring moral quandaries in a way that asks your viewers to do some thinking of their own. Along those lines, I’m sure you know that there are people who take issue with Nick Kristof and his methods for various reasons. Were you thinking about those critiques while you were making the film?

Metzgar: Which critiques specifically?

Rail: Well, for example, Nick wants us to care about a crisis, and perhaps then we all want to “do something,” so maybe we give money to an aid agency, and that money actually has the potential to make that situation worse. Recently, people have been really upset to find out that most of the money raised for starving Ethiopian children through Live Aid went to warlords and guns, and prolonged the crisis, and made more people starve in the long run. So throwing money into failed governments doesn’t work. Another critique is that it’s paternalistic and almost colonialist to say that the only reason bad things happen in the world is that “we” don’t care, and to assume that “we” can always stop it. Who’s to say that “we” are the solution? These are some of the criticisms that I’ve heard, and I wondered if you’d heard them, and if it affected your take on the material at all. Sorry, that’s a really long question.

Metzgar: No, that’s okay. I don’t think that those two particular critiques are accurate of Nick Kristof. Nick is very skeptical of those that suggest that money is the solution to these problems. He doesn’t think the U.S. government should just funnel money into failed states, because he knows from experience where that money is going to end up. He knows good intentions can be poorly executed. For example, that if you try to build schools without understanding the local dynamics, that there’s a good chance that the school will be burned down by a militia, or have its boys recruited by a militia. He also knows, in the grand scheme, that only Congo can save Congo, and that the international community can only try their best to aid the improvement of suffering nations. Nick understands the politics. He doesn’t making sweeping statements or offer easy cure-alls. He deals in complexity. But he certainly has his detractors. During the making of the film, there was the thought of, “oh, we need to include detractors tearing Nick apart,” as part of the interviews, in the guise of objective filmmaking. But I don’t believe in objectivity at all. And anyway, I don’t think having someone say, “I love this person” and another saying, “I hate this person” equals some kind of rational look at a person or an issue. At the end of the day, it’s my film, and after observing Nick for a long time, I feel that what he is doing is remarkable. I didn’t want to take jabs at him just because I could. I wanted to represent what I see as the beauty and power of what he does, and then let people judge it as they will. But personally, I don’t know that I’ve ever come across any journalist who’s had a greater global impact than Nick.

Rail: Did you think that your film might inspire the kind of action that Nick’s columns and books inspire?

Metzgar: No, I really didn’t. Editing can be such an isolated, otherworldly experience. You sit alone in a room for months and months, and you can forget that there’s going to be an audience at the end of the process. And you can’t predict the life of a film [once it’s out there]. For example, with Life. Support. Music. because it was centered around this one person and his family, with so many scenes in an apartment and small hospital rooms—to me it felt like a rather small and beautiful and intimate film. I never thought, “This will be used as an inspirational film in hospitals.” Which is happening now. With Reporter—I don’t know. Some find it inspiring. Some find it devastating. I think it’s both, and more. I feel the same when I read Nick’s columns.

Rail: What kind of conversations do you hope that people have with each other as they’re walking out of the theater?

Metzgar: I think more about the internal conversations one has with oneself. I find it ultimately confusing—in my soul—to be living in an affluent country when there is so much suffering and poverty in the world. My birthday will come around, and I’ll go out to dinner at a really nice restaurant. The bill comes, and I look at it and I just have this pang. I simply cannot reconcile my feelings about spending this much money for a meal. Then I start to think about how much I need, and how much I want. And then I can get confused about whether this money is even mine. I can’t work out my feelings. In the end, I just pay the bill, and move on. Yet that pang needs to be dealt with at some point. That pang is the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. These are some of the things that making this film have made me think about. But I still have no answers. I can’t control what someone else will think about when they leave the theater, but I hope the film inspires certain pangs.

Rail: Do you think making this film changed you?

Metzgar: When you see the things you see in Congo, you can’t help but become that annoying guy at dinner parties who wants to talk about people starving and dying in Africa. And you have to kind of dial it back a little, because maybe it’s not always the most productive thing to do. Now that I think about, I don’t get invited to so many dinner parties anymore. [Laughs.] But I feel like people are good inside. I don’t believe in evil. And I think the vast majority of people want to help other people. I think when you see the images in my film, or when you read Nick’s column, most people do in fact have a great urge to help relieve this suffering. But something happens from when you have that feeling to 10 minutes later when you don’t. There’s some diminishment of the emotion that was about to make you act. I’ve been trying to learn how to take that feeling and act on it immediately. It’s hard, but I’ve found it gets easier over time. And it’s not just about giving money—you have to get creative, as you learn to do in so many other parts of your life, to think up ways to be of service in the world in ways that fit your abilities and gifts.

Penny Lane, November 2010