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Great Britain

Behind the scenes of one Middle East investigation I'll never forget

Film directors are not the only ones who have to cut stories from their work. When The Independent still existed in paper form, I would lose track of the number of times a foreign editor would call me with the familiar plea: “Bob, can we keep this to 500 words?” Or: “Will this hold till next week?” A website means I can write 1,500 words – and it can “hold” for a mere hour.

But you never forget the stories which never made it. When the Americans occupied Baghdad in 2003, I went to see the intimidated, fearful few thousand Palestinian refugees who lived in the Iraqi capital. They were the old refugees from 1948 Palestine – or their children or grandchildren. Back then, the Iraqi army and the Egyptians and the Jordanians and the Syrians and Lebanese had fought the Israelis for Palestine – and lost. When the Iraqis retreated, they took many of the Palestinians in their sector all the way back to Baghdad, hundreds of miles from their original homes.

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Saddam had later given them the houses of Iraqis who had offended the regime, or disappeared into its dreadful prisons. Now the Iraqis had come to take their property back – and displace the Palestinians all over again.

It was one of the many terrible ironies of this latest Middle East war. If the Americans had really come to free the Iraqis from Saddam – be sure this was untrue – they had certainly not come to help the Palestinians. The refugees told me their miserable stories: intimidation and fear and, in the end, a miserable autumn in yet another newly-built UN tent encampment.

But my story simply sat in London. Each time it was to run as a page lead, a bomb would blow a clutch of US soldiers away or an explosion would tear down a mosque with its worshippers inside. Story postponed. Day after day, it would be added to the news conference stories list until – two months after I filed it – a desk editor admitted that it was jinxed. The story had moved on, the Palestinians were no longer a major story in Baghdad, there simply was no space.

It was all true. And my report never made it into print. Eventually, I included the sorry and tragic little tale of the Palestinians of Baghdad in one of my books on the Middle East, their words and their plight amid their now hostile Iraqi neighbours preserved in a volume rather than in the pages of a newspaper. Maybe their story will last longer now.

I almost lost another story to the squeeze of page space.

I had interviewed a young British artist in Beirut called Tom Young. He had painted a graphic series of paintings of Lebanon’s Ottoman past and its Second World War settlement, when the country was handed to the Free French — who were duly turfed out by the British. The pictures, to be exhibited in Beirut, were stunning. Young is less the struggling artist today, more a titan of Lebanon’s pictorial history – but back when he was a more callow youth, he needed all the publicity he could get. I wrote a column on his work with copious illustrations of his paintings.

It was the same old problem. Other stories needed the space. Young’s tale popped up again, repeatedly, on the news conference story schedules, week after week, until editors in London grew so weary of reading about the contents of the story that they imagined they had already read it. Six months later – by which time Tom Young was preparing the same exhibition in London – the story had become truly dog-eared.

But I made one more effort – and quite by chance, it coincided with the paper’s launch of a new arts column. Bingo, the whole story ran at last – and only days before the opening of Young’s London exhibition. He wrote to me enthusiastically that it could not have been better timed; it had drawn aficionados to his “vernissage”. He had sold some of his paintings. A story saved. The space had been found.

The rape and destruction of Lebanon’s ancient and historical mountain chains by armies of men quarrying into the hillsides for construction companies was a story made for the media. Villagers and ecologists protested – and were threatened by armed men. Yung Chang and his crew followed me as I explored these canyons of broken rock, this savage assault on the landscape of a Biblical nation. The Maronite church, I quickly established, was involved in the sale of these lands.

And the millions of tons of rocks and crushed stone were to be used in the construction of wealthy high-rise apartment blocks in Beirut and Sidon, vast canyons of million-dollar homes largely uninhabited – because they are owned by rich Iraqi and Syrian investors. The construction companies are linked to prominent Lebanese political figures. The stories ran in full across The Independent’s website, with pictures.

Now I'll Yung Chang explain his “crisis of journalism”… 

Yung Chang:

It’s no secret that Robert Fisk writes and reports on the most dire and horrific atrocities witnessed over the past 43 years with unrestrained candor and in a clear, no-nonsense way that can be intimidating for anyone venturing to meet him for the first time. The anger and outrage in his work could, I thought, make for an unsettling, somber personality. So I embarked on an initial research trip to Beirut in the winter of 2016, nervously clutching my overworked copy of Pity the Nation, fearful of the one-on-one time I’d be spending with a man for all seasons.

But in our first introduction, I was completely thrown off-kilter by the Robert Fisk before me. Firstly, he’s not a physically burly nor Carton de Wiart-type figure. In fact, quite the opposite: I’d describe him as a Spitfire orb of infectious, unrelenting energy. At 73 years young, ol’ Fisky has the same zest as his 29-year-old self first stationed in Beirut back in 1976, the year before I was born.

Fisk can easily talk your ear off for hours on end without pause. The man seems to suffer no fatigue. I found it hard to keep up.

As a filmmaker, the first instinct you have when embarking on a film (whether it be documentary or fiction) is always about ‘casting’. We use the same terminology in the non-fiction world. Is your protagonist a complete bore? How are they in front of the camera? With Fisk, not only did he have that sprightliness, but something else that I had no idea would be so apparent: his affable and disengaging humour. This man was funny — extremely funny — and I knew, off of that research trip, that Fisk would make an engrossing character study.

Which brings me to this never-before-seen clip about the destruction of the Lebanese mountains from one of our many rough-cut versions of This is Not a Movie. It’s a relief that I can share with you a sequence that was left on the proverbial cutting-room floor because it was heartbreaking for my editor (the brilliant Mike Munn) and I to let it go.

We cut the sequence because it just didn’t seem to fit, tonally and in the scope of everything else Fisk has accomplished, especially in the context of the overall shape of the film. It was unfortunate because I think it truly captures Fisk, a man driven by a hungry, boyish curiosity that exposes exactly what makes him tick. Here he is unfiltered and unrestrained covering a local environmental story in his own Beirut ‘backyard’.

Through it all, Fisk’s dogged reporting comes through with journalistic integrity intact. The words in the published article tell an urgent and infuriating story. What you’ll never experience, though, is the behind-the-scenes of Fisk’s investigative reporting, the ‘aliveness’ of the scenarios his curiosity threw us into. It was a joy to be part of the fun of his journalistic life.

And, by the way, there is a car chase. Enjoy!

This is the final installment in Robert Fisk’s This is Not a Movie series. Read the first installment here

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