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Filmmaker gives voice to Congo’s desperate souls

Independent Film Series shows documentary ‘Reporter’ before GSC audience

POSTED: November 18, 2010 12:30 a.m.
/For The Times

Filmmaker Eric Metzgar, a University of Georgia graduate whose documentary "Reporter" was screened Nov. 11 at Gainesville State College as part of the Independent Film Series.

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Documentary filmmaker and University of Georgia graduate Eric Metzgar attended a screening of his film "Reporter" Nov. 11 at Gainesville State College to share the tale of his 2007 excursion into the Congo.

Metzgar joined two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on one of his many journeys to dangerous corners of the world.

"I went along," Metzgar said, "and we didn't know what kind of film it was going to be."

In addition to the film crew, Kristof brought Will Okun, an English teacher from Chicago, and Leana Wen, a medical school graduate from Washington University, who reflected on their journey beside Kristof's biweekly column.

"Reporter" follows Kristof as he seeks to find the most heart-wrenching story in the region of the Congo that borders Rwanda to spread awareness of the problems faced by the war-torn country's poor and starving citizens.

The film follows Kristof, his guests and the method behind his writing as much as the tragic situations they all write about.

"You see him dashing into these villages, asking these people brutal personal questions," Metzgar said to the audience during a question-and-answer session after the screening.

Kristof might find someone in one hut related to someone murdered in a massacre, Metzgar said, and that would definitely inspire outrage in his readers.

"But if he went to the next hut, he might find someone who was actually in the massacre," Metzgar said, "and that firsthand account would inspire 10 degrees more."

Despite his concerns over skipping many stories people shared with Kristof, Metzgar acknowledged that as director, cinematographer and editor of the film, he was doing the same thing.

"I picked the Congo because it was the most intense," he said. "I was making the same decisions that Kristof was making."

Metzgar put it in an even broader perspective when he said the local papers "don't write about some guy in the laundromat who was happy that his laundry got cleaned."

However, Metzgar wasn't the only person who had reservations about Kristof's methods. Wen spoke multiple times in the film about how heart-wrenching it is to have to skip over some tear-inducing stories.

In fact, it was when Wen, who had just graduated from medical school, puts her foot down to try and help Yohanita Nyiahabimama, who was dying of starvation, that Kristof found the story he eventually wrote about.

"There was nothing special about Yohanita except that she was in front of us," Kristof wrote in his column. "In villages throughout the region, people just like her are dying by the thousands — a deadly mixture of war and poverty."

What separates Kristof from Wen is that the columnist, while devastated by every story, is able to handle that through every painful interview.

"You can see him working the math," Metzgar said.

However, a young doctor's determination to help people in desperate need gave Kristof the inspiration he needed to spread awareness and help thousands just like Yohanita.

As quickly as the emotions are brought up, though, the trip ends two weeks later, only days after the travelers met and helped Yohanita. Everyone then flew back to America to resume their normal lives.

"There's life before this trip, and there's life after this trip," Metzgar said. "I don't want to say I'm a different person, but it definitely changes the way you live."

Upon returning, Metzgar went through a period of readjustment to the normalcy of life in Brooklyn.

"There was a lot of anger at first," he said. "I was really angry, honestly, that not everyone was at worked up about was going on over there. I was angry that I couldn't convince my friends to get as outraged as I was."

"Then I got really guilty. I would go into grocery stores and see the aisles and aisles of food. I thought that there was something wrong here. What's with this irreconcilable gap between the haves and have-nots?"

Metzgar said he eventually found acceptance that there's nothing he can immediately do, but he told himself that he was going to make the film, talk about it, and do everything he could for the situation in the Congo.

After the screening and hourlong Q&A, many members of the audience thanked Metzgar for his work on the film and contributions to their perspective.

"You've made a tremendous difference already," one woman in the group of grateful audience members said to him.

The Independent Film Series, a collaboration between the Arts Council and Gainesville State College, will host the fourth film in the series, Do No Harm, next year at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 17 at the Smithgall Arts Center in Gainesville. The film is a documentary about unethical practices at a nonprofit hospital in Georgia.

 



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