Two months ago I packed my bags and left Belgrade to take a job in Washington, DC Đ not in anyway an answer to the BIA vs. CIA question, I should point out.
At the moment I am working for The Atlantic, a slightly left of center, general interest publication with a long and respected history.
Recently, in an introductory conversation with a blogger for the magazine’s newly expanded website, I mentioned my year in Serbia and my interest in South Eastern Europe. His response: “Oh, the Balkans Đ that’s so esoteric. Aren’t you about ten years too late on that?”
(As a side note, Atlantic writer Robert Kaplan was not “ten years too late.” He jumpstarted his journalism career in the early 1990s with his travelogue of the region, Balkan Ghosts Đ a popular yet quintessentially ignorant, Western account of the region on the eve of Yugoslavia’s dissolution. To give you a sense of Kaplan's take on the place, he begins by attributing the origins of Nazism to Balkan hatred, and that’s only the introduction.)
While shocked by the dismissive, simplistic remark from this blogger Đ a voice of popular American pseudo-intellectualism Đ I was actually more surprised to discover recently that while the region is ten years too late for news media, Hollywood has not come to the same conclusion.
Just three weeks ago, almost twelve years since Bosnia’s peace agreement removed the tiny country from the international limelight, Hollywood released yet another Bosnia film, this time starting Richard Gere and Terrence Howard.
The Hunting Party, a movie, loosely based on a “true” story by American journalist Scott Anderson, follows three American reporters on a hunt for “The Fox,” a fictional stand in for war fugitive Radovan Karadzic. Gere, the lead reporter, is a broken man looking to rebuild his career and revenge the death of the woman he loved. Back in Bosnia for the five year commemoration of the war’s end, he and his former camera man set off in search of Bosnia’s number one war criminal, but before they can get to him they are held at gun point by a dwarf, run off the road by a dump truck, confused for CIA agents, and entwined in an international conspiracy to protect none other than The Fox himself.
On the spectrum of Hollywood productions set in war torn or post war Bosnia, this one falls somewhere in the middle. Its enemy Serbs are not quite as mindless as the grunting Serbian soldiers of Behind Enemy Lines (2001), but the role of self-righteous journalist lacks any trace of nuance that at least grazed the comparable protagonist of Welcome to Sarajevo (1997).
Like all popular Western representations of the region, this film is rife with the classic Balkan stereotypes: “Balkan madness,” mystery, and, of course, its exotic women.
Despite its predictably Balkanizing rhetoric, however, the film actually attempts to replicate two genera perfected by Balkan sensibility, that of dark humor and conspiracy theory. But as it flounders between the two, The Hunting Party fails at both. Richard Gere’s Serbian alone is far more amusing than his witty asides (my favorite: Gere asking "Imate li domaci slivovitz"), and the plot line’s gross simplification of the peculiar dynamics surrounding the international community’s hunt for Radovan Karadzic is drowned out by its relentless high action sequences.
The Hunting Party's greatest flaw, however, lies not in its depiction of Bosnia or regional issues Đ by now I’ve learned that to dismiss a film on such grounds is to dismiss almost all film of such subject matter, foreign and domestic alike. Rather it lies in the film’s glorification of foreign journalists as freewheeling, drug using playboys driven by adrenaline addiction and the thrill of the chase.
The value and danger of foreign reporting is not to be underestimated. Recent events in Burma alone speak to both the danger of and the need for this harrowing job. In a country of broken Internet signals and regime controlled media, foreign journalists reporting from inside the country have been key to keeping the world informed during the Junta’s violent crack down. But for Kenji Nagai, the Japanese journalist shot by Burmese soldiers, information flow came at a price.
According to Reporters Without Borders, 113 journalists were killed last year while doing their job. I wonder what they or anyone who knew them would think of lines from the film like Gere’s reaction to narrowly escaping enemy fire: “Putting yourself in danger is actual living Đ everything else is just television.”
Sadly, this skewed, shortsighted understanding of journalism and foreign reporting is not limited to Hollywood spectacle. Last year I encountered this self-serving attitude far too often among expats living in the region. For instance, shortly after I returned from a trip to Kosovo last May, a fellow American resident of Belgrade said to me over coffee, “You know, I really hope something gets stirred up down there. If things in Kosovo were to flare up, I’d be down there in an instant and have my journalism career made.”
Let’s just hope ten years time doesn’t find this young expat's name dotting the pages of The Atlantic alongside Robert Kaplan.