The Troubles We’ve Seen

By James Leahy


"The Troubles We've Seen must be shown in all the schools, because that’s where people learn to read the images to which, as I see it, so many have become enslaved." – Letter from Bertrand Tavernier, producer of the film, to Marcel Ophuls, after a screening.

Subtitled – A History of Journalism in Time of War, Marcel Ophuls’ new film was one of three or four very challenging documentaries shown at the 1994 London Film Festival. It is a testing and ultimately a rejection of the notion posed by actor Philippe Noiret early in the film: ‘Would it have changed anything if people had been able to see Auschwitz on the television?’ As his testing ground Ophuls takes Sarajevo, besieged by those who believe in and wish to impose such notions as ‘ethnic cleansing’.

veilles-dames-marcel-ophulus.jpgVeillees d’Armes, dir. Marcel Ophuls

Ophuls is not afraid to put himself, as a Jew (German by birth) who escaped the Holocaust, at the centre of his investigations, nor to take sides. His and the film’s sympathies are clearly, and rightly, with those on the side of tolerance, and fighting to preserve their way of life. Many on the government side (the so-called Muslim side) are themselves Serbs. They remain free to practise their religion and produce their newspaper.

Ophuls is a master story-teller and dialectician. He finds meaning in anecdote and apparent digression as much as in the testimony of those he interviews. Thus, just when we might feel that the title he has chosen for his work is apt, if slightly glib, he leads us to a heroic surgeon in Sarajevo, who sings for the camera the song that was his party-piece in happier days: The Troubles We've Seen! His use of extracts from feature films is sometimes ironic, sometimes angry, sometimes affording the audience an apparent breathing space. However there is usually a dialectic there, between artifice and document, the personal and the public, history and narrative. Nowhere is this more so than in the use of material from his father’s De Mayerling à Sarajevo. The filming of this elegant fictional account of a quarter of a century of vicissitudes in the fortunes of the Austrian Hapsburgs, culminating in the shots that precipitated World War I, coincided with the outbreak of World War II, during which the Serbs, aggressors now, were major victims, whilst the Ophuls family was forced to flee to the USA to survive.

troubles-weve-seen-3.jpgAn important passage in the film explores the captioning and presentation of the photographic image. The discussion is focused around Robert Capa’s famous ‘moment of death’ photograph from the Spanish Civil War. Ophuls cross-cuts between veteran American reporter Martha Gellhorn, who disputes that Capa, a friend and colleague, would have presented as authentic a photograph that had been staged, and Phillip Knightley, who sees the issue as one of institutional frameworks rather than personal integrity. He describes the set-up for the marketing and distribution of an image such as Capa’s, where captioning and presentation would be outside the control of the photographer, particularly when the latter has returned to the front.

Through interviews in Paris Ophuls is able to indicate how, today, scheduling, institutional formats and star network presenters are equally powerful gatekeepers, determining the importance given to the Bosnian conflict, and how the public relates to it emotionally.

troubles-weve-seen-4.jpg Of course, in analysing such institutional dimensions of the media, Ophuls is engaging with the kind of structures that will determine the future of his own film, how and when the public will see it. The BBC is one of the co-producers, and, it is a pleasure to report, has decided to invest in the third part which Ophuls wishes to edit from existing material and footage to be shot during a further visit to Sarajevo, Nevertheless one is left with a series of questions: at the LFF screening there was talk of transmission during December 1994; however it has not yet been possible to obtain confirmation of this. Will the revival of fighting hasten the film’s appearance? Or delay it? Or will it be deemed unacceptable viewing so close to Christmas? The film is currently in two parts, ‘First Journey’, which runs 74 minutes, ‘Second Journey’ running 135 minutes; given the nature of the film’s dialectical mosaic, a case may be argued that transmission should be delayed till Part 3 is ready. Conversely, however, such a delay seems to betray the urgency of its direct engagement with the siege of Sarajevo.

Whereas in France, it has been possible to find an exhibitor prepared to open the film in a major Paris cinema (replacing Pulp Fiction!) there is little chance of any theatrical presentation for a documentary here. Yet this too inevitably affects the reception of the film, the amount of attention it receives in the press, and how audiences relate to it emotionally. The latter is very important, particularly in relation to the fear Ophuls voiced as he left the LFF on his way to a meeting at the BBC, that people are unable to handle emotionally all the media signals they now receive. To speak very personally and subjectively, I know that, though I chose to go to a cinema to see this film, I fear it is the kind of programme I tend to distance myself from on TV, one I might tape for future, and perhaps analytical, viewing, rather than watch when broadcast. Moreover, this does relate to my own feelings of anger and powerlessness when television confronts me with the disasters of war and politics.