Given a broadband connection and a little persistence, you will be able to locate online a short video titled “The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl.” Made in February 2002 and circulated continually ever since, it is, first and above all, the record of a murder carried out in Pakistan by jihadis with a Wall Street Journal reporter as their victim. But to call this artifact a record is also to say that it is an audiovisual production: something that had a budget (undisclosed), cast (secured by kidnapping), script, director and distribution scheme. Only a madman would discuss “The Slaughter” in formal cinematic terms, but only a fool would deny it’s a film.
Michael Winterbottom’s film A Mighty Heart, based on the memoir of the same title by Pearl’s widow, Mariane, therefore belongs to a peculiarly self-conscious genre: that of movies about making movies. Here, too, you would have to be dead to all sense to consider form before content, since this film’s claim on your attention has to do with its veracity: You are to believe you’re seeing a more-or-less accurate account of a real event. And yet, true to type, A Mighty Heart also invites you to pause over its aesthetic features, which include a star performance by Angelina Jolie (as Mariane) and a distinctive visual style (created by Winterbottom and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Marcel Zyskind).
The paradox of this artifice is that it makes A Mighty Heart more honest. “The Slaughter” belongs to the most dishonest of genres, propaganda, shot to satisfy hatred and incite further violence. Since its release, it has also circulated (in image and description) as a kind of pornography, enjoyed by those Westerners who get hot and bothered at the thought of Muslim hordes. But even though A Mighty Heart acknowledges (without showing) this film-within-a-film, it does so without sensationalism, fathoming the horror of “The Slaughter” yet refraining from any attempt to crank up the audience. This is a moral choice made possible by the creation of a certain aesthetic distance–and I’m not sure anyone but Winterbottom could have pulled it off.
A chronic confounder of expectations, he has taken special pleasure over the years in merging fiction with documentary, whether his story was set in Manchester (as in the rockudrama 24 Hour Party People) or in the part of the world where Daniel Pearl died. Around the time “The Slaughter” was recorded, Winterbottom was wrapping up production on his astonishing feature In This World, about the journey of two Afghan refugees from a camp in Pakistan to the streets of England. The principal cast members, Jamal Udin Torabi and Enayatullah, were nonprofessionals who essentially played themselves in a story that was based on their experiences and shot on location. At the same time, though, In This World was a fiction, unmistakably scripted and shaped, which had been staged for the digital-video camera. Three years later, Winterbottom returned to Pakistan and Central Asia, and to the same mixture of elements, to make The Road to Guantánamo. In part, the film was a talking-heads deposition in which three young British men of Pakistani background gave their account of falling into US custody in Camp Delta. The rest of the film was a re-enactment in which actors took the place of the witnesses.
You sensed in both these pictures that Winterbottom wanted to interpose himself as little as possible between you and the events. What Jamal Udin Torabi and the Tipton Three narrated, he put on screen with as much immediacy as possible in the evident belief that their stories were true. His task was merely–what? to transcribe? to translate? to realize? He was too smart to imply there was a simple definition of his role yet too candid in his sympathies to efface himself.