New documentary to be presented at the RIDM festival explores the challenges of being a journalist in areas of conflict
We as an audience are accustomed to receiving our news from a variety of readily available sources. Yet, behind that link on Facebook, those newspapers articles, and perfectly groomed television anchors, are journalists on the front lines who are making monumental efforts to gather information for us.
Freelancer on the Front Lines, a thoroughly informative film by Santiago Bertolino, tells the story of one such journalist. It follows freelance reporter Jesse Rosenfeld over a period of three years, as he travels through the volatile region of the Middle East in search of stories he believes need to be told.
The film starts off with an emotional farewell dinner hosted by Rosenfeld’s family before his departure from Toronto. His parents are rightfully worried about his upcoming journey to Cairo, where Rosenfeld hopes to make sense of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s rise to power following the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Egypt.
In some ways, his initial trip to Cairo is fitting with the film’s overall message. The general’s rise to power—in what was widely regarded as a sham election-—coincided with the detention of several journalists who attempted to cover the election. The sight of caged journalists, including Canada’s own Mohamed Fahmy, in an Egyptian courtroom, highlighted the importance of Rosenfeld’s work. Democracy cannot survive or flourish without a free press.
From Cairo, Rosenfeld goes on to cover the unrest in the West Bank, the Israel-Gaza conflict of 2014, the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the ensuing refugee crisis. During his journey, he witnesses injustice and human atrocities ranging from the “apartheid road” in the West Bank to the mass executions in Gaza. He sees mass graves of ISIS victims in Iraq and the rotting corpses of ISIS fighters strapped to the cars of Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers. His work gave him a first-hand look at the heartbreaking experience of refugees. Covering such atrocities took a visible toll on the journalist, making his quest to tell these stories all the more admirable.
The film also sheds light on additional challenges faced by freelance journalists. Unlike those who travel on behalf of news organizations such as the BBC or CNN, freelance journalists face additional hurdles such as finding interpreters, guides and military escorts, as well as balancing their budget—which includes, but is in no way limited to, arguing with taxi drivers over cab fare. In addition to the emotional toll and physical danger faced by all journalists working in hostile environments, the film shows Rosenfeld’s constant struggle to convince editors to pick up and finance his stories. Yet, the tribulations seem worth it when the film shows a visibly proud Rosenfeld when he discovers that one of his articles is the top story of the day.
Overall, Bertolino does an excellent job at placing the audience in the trenches alongside Rosenfeld, aptly depicting the struggles of those who bring us news from the front lines.
The film concludes on somewhat of an optimistic note, as Rosenfeld explains his main motivation for doing what he does. The purpose of his work is to inspire his readers to take action against such atrocities, he said. Helping to prevent these stories from recurring or continuing is what he considers useful about his work.
Rosenfeld’s story certainly raises questions about the effect such journalistic work can have. If it weren’t for the work of journalists like Rosenfeld, would Western countries have taken in as many refugees as they did? Would the public have demanded an end to pointless wars, such as in Iraq, sooner, if more reporters like Rosenfeld had been on the front lines? Freelancer on the Front Lines certainly seems to suggest an answer.