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Hernán Zin: ‘Nothing Makes Sense in War’

BARCELONA — Hernán Zin’s latest documentary “Dying to Tell,” a best doc winner at September’s Montreal World Film Festival and last month’s Valladolid Intl. Film Festival, chronicles the aims and personal cost of war correspondents.

Zin has spent more than 20 years in the world’s fiercest conflict zones –Bosnia, Sierra Leona, Rwanda, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan– along with Spanish comrades, several of them dead due to tragic circumstances –Julio Anguita, Ricardo Ortega, Julio Fuentes, José Couso and Miguel Gil. In 2012 in Afghanistan, Zin suffered a panic attack and decided it was time to stop. “Dying to Tell” is the result of that break.

The film is produced by his company Contramedia Films with Quexito Films and Spanish pubcaster RTVE. Zin talked with Variety about the cost of his career,

There’s a sentence in the film –”all that dies within us to tell a story.” What has been the personal cost of your job?

There are the most obvious risks of being killed or kidnapped, but in the long term we pay a very high price regarding our mental health. For me, after 20 years of doing the job, all of a sudden I started suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. It happened in 2012, a pretty tough year. First, I was beaten by hooligans while filming in Argentina. Later, while I was in Afghanistan embedded with U.S. troops, I suffered a panic attack. My mind said: “Enough is enough.” From there on everything changed in my life.

And what are the moral and personal rewards of being a war correspondent?

Every journalist is different. For me, the motivation of going to war is to try to give voice to the victims; try to fight against impunity. I have been very lucky in life. Good family, education, and I felt I had to give something back. There is no other place with greater suffering than war. In this respect, it has always been very tough, seeing so much suffering. But at the same time, I felt I was being useful not just from telling their stories, but from being there with the people that suffer the consequences of war. They always appreciate that someone listens to them.

Are fiction cinema and series appropriate forums to tal about war and war correspondents’ experiences?

There are so many great books about war and reporters –like the ones written by Wojciech Jagielski, Dexter Filkins, James Brabazon, Tim Butcher, Robert Fisk… and so few good documentaries and fiction films. It is such a paradox. I wonder why that is? In fiction, and this may sound strange, what I find closer in spirit to what war somehow really is, are the book “Catch 22” and the TV series “MASH.” Nothing makes sense in war. Maybe that is the reason why it’s always so hard to tell.

What is your goal with “Dying to Tell”?

First there was a very personal motivation: Finding the tools to try to heal myself. That is why in 2013 I started interviewing other journalists about their own PTSD. “How are you dealing with trauma?” was always my first question. I was so lost. Second, in this time of “fake news,” I think it shows the price of making real news. And as a consequence, how much we should value it. Our democracies depend on the quality of the information we have. And we have to support the women and men that produce this news.

What are your international expectations for the film?

I am so surprised that such a small film, funded mostly by myself, has been in so many important festivals; from Shanghai to Krakow, and the awards in Montreal and Valladolid. It seems almost incredible. But I think the generosity of the reporters that participate in the film is the key. It is the first time that so many renowned journalists opened their hearts to the camera. It is unique. We are used to hiding our emotions and giving voice to others.

The reinsertion into daily life is almost like a former prisoner’s….

We are lost when we come home after war because it is very hard to have empathy with the people around you and their problems when you have seen so much suffering. I felt very lonely so many times, isolated. And that also leads to my depression. But it is an effort that we have to make every day. Try to connect again with the small things in life. Try to connect with the people around us. And that comes from understanding that suffering is suffering… Everywhere… No matter the reason.

More than ever, news flies. What role does social media play in spreading sensitive information?

I think that, as journalist, we have never been as free as we are today. And as citizens, we have never had so much access to information. The problem is that we have to look for quality information. The traditional media hardly offers it anymore, but it’s there. I try to spend less time on social media and I’m trying to cut down dependence on my cell phone. It was such a big change. Everything happened so fast. In less than ten years smartphones changed our lives. I think we need to react – similar to what happened with slow food after fast food. Regarding news, in this wild environment, with so much information popping all the time, we have to look for reliable sources and almost ignore the rest. In this era of massive distraction, we have to be more focused than ever.

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