Mai Iskander’s Words of Witness is a dispatch from Egypt, specifically, the aftermath of the uprising in Tahrir Square. Our guide is Heba Afify, a 22-year-old correspondent for the English-language section of a Cairo newspaper. Although she comes from a prosperous family and is tongue-lashed repeatedly by her protective mother for taking too many risks, Afify seems to think nothing of plunging herself into whatever rushing crowd or revolutionary gathering she can find.
Just so, the film—screening at Human Rights Watch Film Festival New York on 23, 24, and 26 June—at first presents Afifiy as if she’s just one individual among many, carried along by the fervor of the storm. Most of the initial footage looks to have been shot during the tumultuous period just weeks after the ouster of President Mubarak, when the Egyptian populace still had faith that the army was on their side and the regime’s Stasi-like State Security forces had disbanded. Bit by bit, Iskander shows Afify in more detail, as she pursues stories beyond what we might have already seen on Western TV. In one instance, she heads out in the middle of the night to film a crowd of protestors who have broken into a State Security headquarters looking for rumored prisoners. Later, Afify directly disobeys her mother to go to a village to report on the aftermath of a violent riot that followed Muslim youths destroying a Christian church. In the melee of yelling bystanders and soldiers, her position as an observer marks her difference from her subjects.
At the same time, the film is caught between positions, observing and also subjective, through Afify’s eyes. While such complexity and shifting can be admirable, Iskander’s film also raises questions about Afify’s reporting, questions that further complicate our position. She appears to be doing her due diligence on the street, taking notes as she speaks with witnesses, looking for what happened, and to whom. But too often, she and her fellow reporters seem creatures of Twitter and Facebook (rarely has a film spent so much time showing people staring at screens). Certainly, this tendency isn’t specific to these journalists, or even to those working in war zones. At the same time, Afify and her colleagues show a particular attachment to the struggle they’re covering, aligning themselves all too closely with the Tahrir Square revolutionaries instead of trying (or pretending) to be objective about the revolution as it unfolds. Afify (who has since gone on to contribute reporting to the New York Times) seems unable to heed the caution of a co-worker, “Don’t get involved.”
The reporters covered in Reportero can’t help but get involved in the stories they’re covering. As shown in Bernardo Ruiz’s sterling film, screening at Human Rights Watch Film Festival New York on 21, 22, and 23 June, they work for Zeta Weekly, an investigative newspaper based in Tijuana that follows the stewpot of corruption and violence that is Mexico’s Baja region. For a time after the paper was founded in 1980, editor Jesus Blancornelas worked from an office in the United States in order to avoid being arrested or killed by the criminal and government powers who remain his team’s focus. The paper still prints in the United States and still worries for the safety of its workers.
Words of Witness (2011)
In a semi-functioning democracy, the kind of journalism practiced by Zeta—a market-friendly mix of fact-finding pieces, social justice stories, and titillating items about the drug wars—would be admired and protected as a necessary pillar of society. However, Mexico has moved straight from a one-party plutocracy without a free press (one reporter notes that in the old days, the company that sold printer paper was government-run, so if they didn’t like your stories, you didn’t get paper) to its current state of existential corruption and gangland butchery. Increasingly, journalists are just one more target to be eliminated when they prove troublesome. Since 2006, at least 40 have been killed or gone missing. It’s a staggering number, made worse by the fact that nearly all these cases remain unsolved.
For his own investigation of this ongoing crisis, Ruiz interviews a number of Zeta employees and presents a history of the paper, outlining various threats to its reporters as Mexico has approached seeming tribal anarchy. But Reportero‘s focus is Sergio Haro, a veteran at the paper who looks like he would bleed printer’s ink. He helps to frame the documentary’s argument for the necessity of reporting, and also the film’s calculus of risk and reward. At one point, HAro’s editor, Blancornelas, had to be protected by a military escort of 20 to 25 soldiers. Faced with dangers like that, Zeta made the calculation to run a collective byline for stories about the “narcos.” Still, the reporters persist in taking chances. An editor notes, “You can’t run after a politician if you’re wearing a bulletproof vest.” But run after them they do.
Words of Witness