Dispatches | March 04, 2009

Eric Daniel Metzgar’s Reporter profiles New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof’s work in the Congo. The film, screened last weekend at the True/False Film Fest, concentrated on Kristof’s relentless pursuit to find the face of the Congo. He found that face attached to the 60-pound body of a 41-year-old woman displaced by the warring lords of the Congo. Her name was Yohanita. I say “was” because she died a few weeks after Kristof, the film crew, and two assistants to Kristof – Leanna Wen and Will Okun – found her.

The film directs attention to the problems of how people respond to the need for aid. Kristof cites multiple studies revealing people are less likely to get involved when presented with a scenario of need for two or more individuals or when presented with mass numerical statistics. However, when people are presented with a personal story, the likelihood for aid greatly increases. So, humans are humane, right? We want to connect on a personal level, right?

But what about us? What about the writers and the reporters like Kristof? It seems like sad, tragic events become story ideas. Kristof travels from village to village, asking refugee after refugee for a sick a person. Finally, he stumbles upon Yohanita and the look on his face seems so indifferent. Wen, a medical student, immediately asks for a hospital. Her face is filled with worry in mere seconds. Kristof and crew took Yohanita to a hospital after much reassurance to the villagers and family. The film shows Kristof writing in his column, “How can you walk away from a human being who will surely die if you do so?”

Even so, Kristof is conflicted by the big picture. In the same column noted above, he continues to write, “Instead of spending a few hundred dollars trying to save Yohanita, who might die anyway, we could spend that money buying vaccines or mosquito nets to save a far larger number of children in other villages.” What is more humane? Attempting to save the dying woman in front of you or raising awareness about the hundreds and thousands dying all around her?

I refuse to believe we, as writers, lose our hearts and souls to the story idea. I believe what Kristof does is incredible. However, I can’t help but wonder, as Kristof walks to his jeep and waves farewell to the villagers and says to them, “I hope things get better,” does he really mean it?

Scott Scheese