This week I was able to get to The Paley Center for Media's annual DocFest. This year's theme is "Where Politics Meets Culture". Monday night I caught The Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall and last night saw Reporter. Although The Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall by filmmaker Oliver Halmburger was an interesting lesson in history, it was Reporter that has really left me full of thought. Subtle and powerful, Reporter, by talented filmmaker Eric Daniel Metzgar, tracks the New York Times, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Nicholas Kristof's quest for stories that might evoke compassion in the readers of his columns. Not an easy task in the world of today. Mr. Metzgar weaves this challenge into the film too. Both the print journalist and the filmmaker take much risk to bring us a human connection and in the process examines what inspires true compassion and what circumstances evoke the kind of emotion that moves others to action. Mr. Metzgar also serves as the film's narrator and his voice has a quality that resinates. He sites an example from a Nicholas Kristof column where the journalist examines what makes one want to help another and at what point is the drive to help lost.
From a Nicholas Kristof article and also used by Mr. Metzgar in the film, "For example, in one study, people donate generously to Rokia, a 7-year-old malnourished African girl. But when Rokia’s plight was explained as part of a larger context of hunger in Africa, people were much less willing to help." I found this idea perversely fascinating and true. I am overwhelmed by a global problem but feel seemingly more helpful if I can reach out to one. Coming to one person's aid is tangible. Fighting genocide is pretty abstract and of course intimidating. Too horrific to process. That's why I'm such a sucker for Children International. I saw a photo of one child. One child that I could help get school supplies and shoes. A child I can correspond with. That is something I can wrap my head around. That being said, I don't think I can justify just sponsoring a child in need by a monthly donation and call it a day.
So how does a journalist bring stories of hideous atrocities to the American reader and in turn inspire action for a problem that has killed millions like in the Congo? According to the film and Nicholas Kristof's philosophy, you bring one painful and very personal story of one individual at a time. That's how you get people to care and I believe that. At the same time, I don't think this notion means people are without compassion or empathy. To me, it means people process a one on one connection better. Human to human instead of human to... enormous number impossible to visualize. That's hopeless and as I've implied in a previous blog, hope is a valuable.
The Q&A turned out to be a plug for the documentary (look for it on HBO in February/March of 2010) as well as a sell for Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's (The two are married and the first husband and wife winners of a Pulitzer Prize) book entitled Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Tonight I exited the theatre truly moved by the beautiful film, Reporter, but also by the post Q&A with the filmmaker, Eric Daniel Metzgar,Nicholas Kristof, the journalist and documentary's main character, and moderator, Pat Mitchell, President and CEO of The Paley Center for Media.