A Thousand Times Good Night: A life in conflict
By Ratha Lehall
On Monday 28 April, the Frontline Club hosted a fully booked preview screening of the feature film A Thousand Times Good Night, which was followed by a Q&A with the film’s director, Erik Poppe, moderated by Gavin Rees from the Dart Centre Europe.
The film, which stars French actress Juliette Binoche, tells the story of a war photographer and the impact of her work, which often exposes her to danger, on her life and that of her family and their relationships with each other. The film begins with Rebecca, Binoche’s character photographing the lead up, execution and aftermath of a suicide bombing in Kabul. It is a semi-autobiographical film; Rebecca is based on Poppe and much of the film is based on experiences of the director’s own life, especially the “push and pull” of his career and family life.
Binoche met with different journalists, many of whom had spent a lot of time in Afghanistan and Kenya, as well as other countries, in order to prepare for her role as Rebecca and to understand her character and what it’s like to be a journalist. Poppe also mentioned that they were very close to taking a trip to Syria, before it “turned too crazy”, so she could meet with people and “feel the atmosphere and how it is”. He described how she wanted to go as far as she could to understand what it is like to do this job, and having to make difficult decisions. One of the questions touched on the ethics of being a photojournalist in conflict zones and having to make the decision to simply observe what is happening, and not intervene, even in fatal circumstances. Poppe said that this is a pressure that all journalists face, and is another layer of the complexity of Rebecca’s story in the film. He talked about how important it is that you have the trust of the people you are following. If a situation becomes too difficult, “you can always withdraw”.
Many of the questions from the audience focused on the autobiographical nature of the film. Rees asked Poppe to highlight any parallels between Rebecca and himself, and which moments in the film are the most significant. Poppe told the audience that almost all the scenes are taken from his own life, with the exception of one: a very dramatic scene involving Rebecca and her eldest daughter Steph, who is based on Poppe’s eldest daughter, where Rebecca makes a decision, as a photographer, that sees her go towards danger, and away from her daughter.
“I wanted to create a scene where we . . . pushed her away from us. . . . I needed to have a scene that is believable from both perspectives. . . . It’s horrible that she does that for her kid, but still, I can also see from her point of view.”
Poppe discussed with the audience his own experiences as a photographer and filmmaker in conflict zones, and how it affects his family’s lives. He described the dilemma and guilt he feels about almost “putting them in a prison”:
“When I’m out there, doing this stuff, [my wife is] sort of captured in a sort of situation where . . . the TV is not on, for three weeks, four weeks, five weeks that I’m gone, the radio is not on, she is in a panic about getting any news, every time she hears that there is a suicide bomber in Kabul or in . . . Pakistan, she immediately thinks I’m in it, and . . . her life is ruined until she’s got a confirmation that, no, I wasn’t there. . . . She doesn’t watch anything anymore, and my eldest daughter is almost in the same position.”
He asks himself: “How can I allow myself to put them in that position?” This is the complexity that he wanted to show in the film, particularly the complexities involved with discussing his work with his children.
Later on in the Q&A, Poppe was asked about his definition of a hero, when an audience member said that he felt that journalists like Rebecca and Poppe are heroes, as they are putting themselves in danger in order to help others. Poppe disagreed, saying that, while the job that a professional journalist does is extremely important, there is also a degree of selfishness that comes with being a journalist:
“There is . . . an element of a rush . . . if I’m really honest, to be out there, that close to life and death, to tell those stories which you really feel are important . . . and that’s, sort of, more egocentric and not so sympathetic . . . if you really look at the whole . . . motivation.”
Instead, he feels that the local people who are making sacrifices in their lives are the heroes, while living in conflict zones and often being victims themselves, in order to help those around them.