1991-2000DocumentaryFranceMarcel OphülsPolitics

Marcel Ophüls – Veillées d’armes AKA The Troubles We’ve Seen: A History of Journalism in Wartime (1994)

Complete French Title: Veillées d’Armes: histoire du journalisme en temps de guerre
Complete English Title: The Troubles We’ve Seen: A History of Journalism in Wartime


None of Marcel Ophuls’ films have ever been very easy to see, but for many years The Troubles We’ve Seen (1994) has had a special mystique. To my knowledge it played only twice in North America (once at the 1994 New York Film Festival and once at Cinematheque Ontario in 1995) before vanishing more or less without a trace. Now, it’s been picked up by the intrepid distributor Milestone, who is showing it widely in anticipation of a planned DVD release. Their timing is ideal.

There is a moment in Troubles—which is ostensibly about the coverage of the war in Bosnia—that is positively eerie in the way that it predicts the mass media’s total inability to resist assimilation during the second Iraq war. Paul Marchand, a young, cocky, cigar-chomping freelancer, rants about how wimpy journalists are for wanting to be in armoured cars, how unwilling they are to submit themselves to the depredations of their subjects. Ophuls takes this as a jumping-off point to talk about how manufactured a lot of war coverage is, how so much of it is taken in relative safety. It’s a strange moment, because while there’s no question that Ophuls dislikes the young journalist’s goofy machismo, he clearly thinks that Marchand is on to something: that most journalists are content to tell the story through the eyes of the powerful and victorious. Made in the heat of the moment, with the Euro-American failure to deal with Bosnia fresh in everyone’s mind, Ophuls’ film is remarkable for the way it addresses those basic questions of media communication that now, unfortunately, seem to be with us permanently.

Indeed, while Troubles is more or less about Bosnia, it actually floats over a wide and quite unpredictable territory. In this, it’s very much an Ophuls film, although closer to The Memory of Justice (1976) than to The Sorrow and the Pity (1969); when I saw Memory at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 1995, the screening was followed by a discussion of the relevance of the Nuremburg Trials for the setting up of an international tribunal for war crimes. But Memory is also Troubles’ clearest cousin in terms of structure: both films wander around the political and intellectual life of Europe with a voracious curiosity missing from either the Occupation films or Ophuls’ Northern Ireland film A Sense of Loss (1972).

Furthermore, this film is very much about the idea of Europe, the difficulty of sustaining a European culture that’s worth sustaining. Seen this way, the film has two real stars, far more important than the various political actors interviewed by Ophuls (Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic being the most obvious). One is John Burns, the English-born, Canadian-educated New York Times war correspondent, who is a delight to behold: avuncular and slightly goofy, holding forth on the difficulties of war reporting and the intense animosity that he has accrued due to his frank assessments of the Bosnian situation. Two moments remain etched in my memory: one is when Burns talks of how in most wars, correspondents inevitably debate the respective identities of aggressor and victim, but that in Bosnia there was unanimity about the degree to which the people of Sarajevo were under siege. The second is a sequence where, outfitted in an oversized jacket and a New York Giants cap, Burns interviews first a soldier and then an old-timer in slow, steady German. Here we start to see that Burns is able to write powerfully and usefully not because he’s able to feel what the Bosnians are feeling, or because he’s able to camouflage himself, as Marchand wants him to; the Giants cap announces his status as an outsider. Burns emerges as the kind of correspondent we need because he approaches his task with the eyes and voice of a foreigner willing to do the drudge work of getting the details that are indispensable to real understanding. That there is a distance between Burns and Bosnia is not itself a problem; indeed, the fact that he and his subject are both speaking a foreign language—and neither party makes an effort to disguise their difficulty—makes this sequence very much of a piece with the film’s overall sense of Europe.

The film’s other “star” is Alain Finkielkraut, a philosopher who, like Ophuls, has been a thorny presence in French intellectual life. He’s written extensively about the war in the former Yugoslavia, most famously in the book Comment peut-on être Croate? (1992), published in English as Dispatches from the Balkan War and Other Writings. We see the impassioned expert in him when, during a phone call with Ophuls, Finkielkraut gets worked up into a semi-rant about the complexities of Croatian history and the inability of the media to move beyond the propaganda distributed by each side in the war. Finkielkraut’s presence in Troubles is almost inevitable; a French film about Bosnia that didn’t include him would be like an American film about WWII that didn’t include Stephen Ambrose. Unlike Ambrose, however, Finkielkraut has an ongoing political-philosophical project that goes far beyond specific, detail-oriented narrative history.

We get a good sense of this in his L’ingratitude: Conversation sur notre temps (1996), a book-length interview with Québécois journalist Antoine Robitaille, where Finkielkraut challenges an overly romantic vision of Sarajevo as a symbol of cosmopolitan Europe under siege by a dying nationalism; he writes that “An authentically plural city, a vertiginous tangle of confessions, calendars, ceremonies and architectures, that doesn’t mean that Sarajevo was ever constituted as the little New-Yorkish approximation run aground in the Balkans, that some, emotionally, wanted to discover.” This aligns nicely with his critique of sentimental multiculturalism in 1987’s La défaite de la pensée (available in English as The Defeat of the Mind). Frustrated by the tone-deafness of both romantic (as in through-rose-coloured-glasses-viewing) advocates and Romantic (as in dirt-worshipping, Wagner-apologizing, non-Christian-disliking reactionary) opponents of multiculturalism, Finkielkraut wrote that “the two camps profess the same relativism. The credos are opposed, but not the visions of the world: both perceive cultures as enveloping totalities, and give the last word to their multiplicity.” Finkielkraut has contrasted the notion of an ethnic state—which he sees as a German invention—with the French idea of a political state. In L’Ingratitude he writes that “France, in short, gave to the world a definition of the nation that was political, and not cultural”; in La défaite de la pensée he writes that “In the century of nationalisms, France—and was its merit and its originality—refused the racializing of the spirit,” which he contrasts to “la bêtise haineuse du Volksgeist,” or, to channel George Burns via Bart Simpson, the hideous bitch-goddess of the “national spirit.” Finkielkraut still believes in the viability of culture as a category (he’s proud of France’s legacy, and annoyed by German Romanticism’s vision of nation) and thinks it an idea worth defending (hence his importance in Québec, particularly in light of his defence of Croatia). But he’s also highly allergic to the politics of ethnic nationalism of whatever stripe (hence the reason that La défaite was such a point of debate in Québec in the 80s).

Finkielkraut wants culture to make demands instead of offering easy comfort, and this, of course, is the vision of Sarajevo offered by Ophuls. We see Sarajevo here as a place where people live side by side and try to create a distinctive culture that reflects this co-existence, but who are utterly unsentimental about their project. When Ophuls interviews an actor whose legs were blown off by a Bosnian Serb bomb, he asks him what he would do if he were acting in a play attended by Nikola Koljevic (another interviewee), the Republica Srpska vice-president and former Shakespeare scholar (who this actor had studied under) responsible for numerous atrocities in the war, likely including the one that blew the actor’s legs off. There is at first some misunderstanding. The actor tells Ophuls that not all Serbs are responsible, that his wife is a Serb, that people live together here. Ophuls presses the point; no, no, what would you if this specific Serb, this man who gave orders to kill civilians, your former professor, was in the audience? Ah, the actor says, now finally understanding: I would kill him.

Written by Jerry White for cinema-scope.com

1.37GB | 3h 44mn | 592×368 | mkv


Subtitles:Burnt in French subtitles for dialogues in languages other than French

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