“If you are a journalist and you have discovered a hidden truth that you are determined to expose, then by definition you become a campaigner. I have difficulty with the word ‘impartial’. A journalist has an overwhelming duty to be accurate and fair but if you are being neutral in a society that is not equal, you are responsible for helping to maintain that status quo.” says the Documentary-Maker – Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields Callum Macrae.
The film-maker Callum Macrae talks with Libby Powell for Chatham House about campaigning journalism and how he plans to follow up his documentary, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields. We publish below the interview in full.
Your work straddles both campaigning and journalism. Is there ever a clash?
If you are a journalist and you have discovered a hidden truth that you are determined to expose, then by definition you become a campaigner. I have difficulty with the word ‘impartial’. A journalist has an overwhelming duty to be accurate and fair but if you are being neutral in a society that is not equal, you are responsible for helping to maintain that status quo.
Your new film on Sri Lanka is No Fire Zone. Why do you call it a ‘film of record’?
We have tried to create a record of what happened at the end of the war in Sri Lanka. It is not some academic account but actually a huge challenge to the attempts by the Sri Lankan government to deny that this happened. We have to be good storytellers but, at the same time, we also consider it evidence. We have a responsibility to make sure it is not in any way misleading because we hope that this film will play a vital role in leading to a process of justice.
Why was this film not made by a Sri Lankan director?
I don’t think there should be advantages to me being an outsider but I think, in this case, perhaps there are. I don’t really like the idea that we’ve been able to get this story on to a national agenda in a way that the Tamil diaspora hasn’t.
The diaspora knew what was going on and were outside Parliament protesting very loudly about the massacres but people weren’t listening. There is a lesson here for all of us: we should listen more.
The fact that I can make this film and show it to the public is a privilege.
Are there more opportunities now for local media to tell their stories?
The beginning of the war in Iraq was the point when we realized things were changing. When I first went to film there, a few weeks after the invasion, we hired cars with TV written on the side. But within a week everyone was taking the signs off the cars or smearing them in mud. The days when a journalist could walk into a war zone with some kind of immunity had just gone.
Over the next two years, it got to the point where we couldn’t even leave the hotels. So local fixers or journalists now had to do the work and I think there is a generation who are being empowered by that. Although their stories may seem less ‘neat’, or slightly coloured by whatever clan or tribe they are in, they are infinitely more accurate and reflective of the situation and probably amount to better journalism.
Were there challenges in using citizen mobile footage in your Sri Lanka work?
There is a great fear of all this mobile footage. If it’s dramatic enough, you’ll run it, but do so with a great distancing. I think we should have more courage. We no longer have a monopoly over the equipment. People are filming and I think that is enormously exciting. But this new media cannot become a substitute for proper investigative journalism or going to those places to find stories that are not being told.
What is your plan for screening No Fire Zone?
I think we have a duty with our film to make people realize the truth about what happened. For the next two years, the Commonwealth is going to be chaired by Sri Lanka, a government accused of some of the worst war crimes this century. This will be catastrophic for the Commonwealth, and disastrous for human rights and the idea of humanitarian law. There is huge value in using film as part of a process of justice. We will hold targeted screenings for Commonwealth diplomats, policymakers and government figures, but also bigger screenings for the public who ultimately call those governments to account.
Your films expose death on a staggering scale – how do you humanize that?
The most difficult and compelling stories are not of those who have died but of those who are left behind. A mass grave is a shocking thing, but the sight of a grieving parent is very difficult to distance yourself from. The most difficult bits to watch in the Sri Lanka film are not the dead, but the survivors.
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