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War and Peace at RIFF

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War and Peace at RIFF

By Zoë Robert
The War You Don't See

A special theme at this year’s Reykjavík International Film Festival (RIFF) was ‘War and Peace.’ A number of lively panel discussions were held on subjects including Ukraine and Russia, war and peace in Europe, the Israeli-Palestine conflict, the media and war, and the Nordic countries and Afghanistan, bringing together the public and special guests, such as investigative and war reporter John Pilger, director Suha Arraf, journalist and writer Sigríður Víðis Jónsdóttir and historian Stefán Pálsson.

In connection with the special theme, several films were screened including Villa Touma (2014) by Arraf, which tells the story of three unmarried aristocratic Christian sisters from Ramallah who have been unable to come to terms with the new reality of occupation and the mass migration of Palestine’s aristocracy, and the new major television series 14 Diaries of the Great War (2014) by Jan Peter, shown in two parts.

Pilger’s documentary The War You Don’t See (2010), which questions the role of the media in war, was touted as one of the must-see events. The film asks whether mainstream news has become an integral part of war-making and explores how embedding journalists with the military impacts the information reported to the public.

The War You Don’t See begins with the haunting footage of the July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrike, footage which WikiLeaks released on April 5, 2010 under the name Collateral Murder, as well as black and white stills of the victims of the U.S. Occupation of Iraq. WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange had shown journalist and now spokesperson for WikiLeaks Icelander Kristinn Hrafnsson the footage in February. Kristinn said in an interview with Iceland Review in 2011 that viewing the footage had prompted him and his producer and cameraman to head straight to Baghdad, from where they reported. The collaboration marked the first time WikiLeaks worked with the traditional media.

In his opening narration Pilger quotes World War I British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s comment to Guardian editor C. P. Scott that, “If the people really knew the truth, the war would be stopped tomorrow.”

Pilger draws on his own experience as a war correspondent but also speaks to a large number of journalists and other media personnel. What really makes the film is that he managed to get so many people to open up and speak about their experiences, in many cases confess what they should have done better while reporting on war. In a Q&A session following one of the screenings, Pilger revealed that it hadn’t been that difficult to get people to participate. “These were good journalists who had never been asked. They were pleased to be asked, to have an opportunity to describe [what happened],” he said.

Among the confessions is that of former CIA analyst Professor Melvin Goodman, who states that part of the Pentagon’s almost USD 1 billion annual propaganda budget is used to manipulate the news.

So critical is Pilger of journalism today that he says that “good journalists are the honorary exception.” When asked by a member of the audience how the public can find the truth, he said that the public must “confront the media because without facts, we can’t change anything.”

While acknowledging that social media now has a large role to play, particularly when getting accounts from people you know and trust, he rejects suggestions that it could replace journalism.

Pilger is passionate and unapologetic about saying what he thinks and about questioning authority at the highest level. However, Guardian television reviewer John Crace put it well when he said that Pilger has a tendency to present in black and white and that “his starting point is that ... all journalists are witless dupes ... which had the feel of slight overkill.” Despite this, Pilger’s film is a must-see, raising vital questions about the media’s role in selling war and about the difficulties in getting past the public relations version of events.

In 1986, Reykjavík became the location where U.S. and Soviet leaders took the first steps towards ending the Cold War. A country without an army, Iceland has been named ‘the most peaceful in the world’ and since 2006, Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower has furthered that image. However, at the start of the War in Iraq in 2003, Iceland joined the Coalition of the Willing and, as a member of NATO, has at other times supported warmongers rather than peacemakers.

RIFF’s forum should serve as a reminder that Iceland must do more than bask in the glow of the Peace Tower to live up to its reputation. Initiatives like that of WikiLeaks and the Icelandic media helped expose the horrors of war and, as in 1986, Iceland can again serve as neutral ground where peace is negotiated.

With the eleventh Reykjavík International Film Festival (RIFF) having come to a close, the festival dates for 2015, September 24 to October 4, have already announced.

See you next year.

Zoë Robert – zoe(at)icelandreview.com