Monday, April 30, 2012

High Tech High Life

Another 3-doc day and I'm pooped.  Today I saw films on beauty pageants in India, fishermen in Kenya, and wrestlers in Seattle.  
There were some AMAZING docs this year at Tribeca, and I'll be writing about some of them on the Storyhunter blog.
The real highlight for me was meeting a citizen journalist/blogger in China who goes by the name Zola.  After watching the documentary by Stephen Maing, "High Tech Low Life" about Chinese citizen journalists, I feel like I have a new appreciation for what journalism is.  In China, there's no such thing as freedom of the press, and before it was something that most Chinese people didn't even realize they're missing.  But I get a sense that the genie's out of the bottle, and the Chinese internet police will never be able to put it back in.
Official Movie Art "High Tech Low Life"
Enter a young twenty-something former vegetable hawker from the Chinese countryside named Zola, (Real life name is Zhou Shuguang 周曙光) who has discovered a passion for journalism . He refers to himself as a blogger to sound less serious. He changes the DNS server to a foreign host in order to get around the "Great Firewall" of China.  He becomes a voice of the poor who faced the destruction of houses in Beijing just before the Olympics.  He investigates an alleged murder by a Chinese official that was labeled an "accident."
Zola says at one point in the film, “The truth is, I don’t know what journalism is. I just record what I see.” And that's what is so endearing about him; how natural he is about his work.  It seemed like he was born to be a reporter, and that nothing in life could give him the satisfaction it gives him (I know the feeling).  He disobeyed his family and traditions and the law to do a job that he didn't get paid for. But he sees himself as a patriot responding to the call of duty, putting civic responsibility ahead of his own personal safety.  
It made me wonder about the nature of this thing we call journalism.  What is this need to know the truth and to share that truth with others? If it doesn't exist, would we need to invent it? Perhaps it is as natural to humankind as love, war, and civilization itself, a necessary byproduct of community?  Or is it simply a natural reaction to corruption and crime?  If a society was perfect, then journalism would not need to exist, right?  But of course that's impossible. 
Zola did face repercussions for his actions.  He wasn't allowed to leave the country at one point.  And now he is based in Taiwan, where he can work much more freely.  I told him after the movie that he is a hero for doing what he's doing.  Knowing that people like him exist make me feel better about the state of journalism, and humanity.  

Me and Zola after the film

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

60 Minutes Christians Controversy

As a huge fan of Bob Simon and 60 Minutes, I was a bit surprised at the focus of his story on the Christians in Holy Land.   The disappearance of West Bank Palestinian Christians is a well known tale, done by nearly every reporter who's ever stepped foot in the West Bank, including yours truly.

Simon's Story

I don't really have any issues with the content of the story, including his grilling of Ambassador Michael Oren for trying to interfere with 60 Minutes editorial position before the story was published.  I thought that was fascinating.  Simon revealed the prickly relationship between the "Mainstream media" and the Israeli government.  Nothing he said in the report was untrue, but perhaps it's what he left out of the report that is the problem.  His critics are correct to point out that you can't do an entire report blaming Israel for its West Bank policies without showing that Christians in Israel proper are doing pretty well.

As a religious Sunday night viewer, I have definitely come to expect more from 60 Minutes.  Why not use the budget and production potential of the program to explore the plight of Christians in the Greater Middle East?  60 minutes needs to be at the vanguard of journalism, not recycling the same old story. While people are still obviously suffering, nothing really new has happened since the wall went up 7 years ago, which is a prerequisite for using the word, "news" to describe your program.

I wholeheartedly empathize with the plight of Palestinian Christians AND Muslims who are suffering more or less equally under Israeli occupation.  It's true that there were incidents of Muslims harassing Christians in the past, they are not really occurring today with any frequency.  The reason Christians are fleeing is the Israeli Occupation, and mainly, because of its economic impact.  They leave the West Bank because they are used to living better, and are more likely than Muslims to have relatives abroad who they can join.   But what about the troubled Christian populations in Syria, in Egypt? What does the world know of them? Not much.  Which is exactly why we need great journalism programs to go to these places.

In case you're curious, here's my story on Bethlehem's complications, from a few years ago.  I had a slightly different angle, but ended up telling the story on the plight of West Bank Christians, Muslims, and Jews who all try and come to worship in Bethlehem.  My most horrendous memory from that report, which didn't make the final cut since I had no footage to show, was riding in the bus along with the Jerusalem-based choir after Midnight mass.  We were stopped at the main Bethlehem-Jerusalem checkpoint by the IDF, and then harassed and threatened by the rudest Israeli soldiers I ever came across.  I pretended not to know Hebrew, but of course understood every nasty word they used to describe a church choir on their holiest and most special night of their year.  I was frisked from head to toe despite showing my journalist credentials, and was nearly assaulted for trying to film.  When they finally let us pass, after an hour, at 3AM, some of the choir members were heaving hysterically, broken down, in tears.  They had gone from pure ecstasy to pure misery, ion Christmas Eve.  Yes, this is what the West Bank Christians often must go through, which makes Simon's story important, but certainly not the whole story.