Friday, February 19, 2010

How to hustle a warlord

If you have a chance, definitely watch HBO's new documentary, "Reporter." It follows New York Times op/ed columnist Nicholas Kristof's journey to Congo and back and various points in between. It seems strange to call Kristof a columnist, as when I hear "columnist" I think of like, Handy Hints from Heloise, or some broad blathering about relationships, and, you know, Kristof is breaking bread with Congo warlords.

It's not a perfect piece. It's a little all over the place, and the mealy-mouthed voice over could definitely be done without, but what makes it interesting is seeing Kristof in action, because, when you think about it, you see a lot of the consequences of what journalists do, but you don't see a lot of journalists in the field, doing what they do. Kristof is kind of an odd bird. He's sort of what I think of as a traditional newspaper reporter. They have no facial expressions. They seem sort of detached from everything, even as they move through it. And, you know, Kristof is not, ah, easy on the eyes. Oh, but, dang, he's just a marvelous reporter, and watching him "carelessly" wing off into the DRC and track down a warlord and traipse through the jungle is, well, I haven't done that. Have you?

The most interesting part is when Kristof sits down with General Laurent Nkunda, a warlord, and one bad ass motherfucker, no one I would want to mess with, or, like, meet while speed dating. And it's very intriguing to see Kristof and Nkunda do the interview dance. Kristof is very, very good, and he gets what he needs from Nkunda, surrounded by guards with guns bigger than the likes of anything I've ever seen, somewhere out in the jungle deeper than you've ever been. Afterward, Nkunda asks them to stay for dinner. Really, they can't, Kristof explains, because the trip home is four hours, and the sun is getting low in the sky, and if they travel at night, they run the risk of being killed. But how do you say no to a warlord? So, they stay. Nkunda provides them with armed soldiers for the ride home, and sends word that no one is to harm them on their return trip, presumably so the man who the warlord has perceived to be his messenger can spread the leader's word to the world.

Now, I've never sat down for dinner with a warlord, but it did remind me of the dance I've done with some of the people in the Valley, particularly the men, the directors. The stereotype of "those guys" has a hairy chest with a phat gold chain tangled in it, but, in fact, directors who cajole people into doing what they otherwise would not do are without a doubt charming. And so is Nkunda. As the interviewer, you can't hustle this subject. A hustler can't hustle a hustler. Yet, you do the dance, and, oftentimes, along the way, the subject falls in love, with something -- the sound of his own words, his story told his way trailing out of his mouth, the way that even though you are an outsider you are here and now giving him your undivided attention. So, in the end, maybe you both fall a little bit in love, mostly, in all likelihood with yourself, or some idea of who you think you are when you play this verbal game of chess, and both sides walk away thinking they've won, and the game keeps on playing.
"Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."--The Journalist and the Murderer