Tag Archives: After Kapuściński

“A very stupid, a very dull debate”: Werner Herzog weighs in on Kapuściński’s handling of the facts

Slate posted an interview with Werner Herzog yesterday in which the German film director’s narrative techniques are compared to those of Polish reportage author Ryszard Kapuściński.

Jacob Weisberg: … of course there are elements of fiction in your nonfiction films.

Werner Herzog: Sure, of course. I stylize, I invent, I do things the accountants of truth would not do. But I’m a storyteller.

J.W.: It’s very apparent in your films, to someone who has seen a lot of them, when there’s a moment of fiction that you’re using for some sort of dramatic purpose. It’s interesting to compare you to Ryszard Kapuściński, the Polish writer. There’s been a lot of debate about his use of fiction in nonfiction work.

W.H.: And it’s a very stupid, a very dull debate, because he’s a great storyteller, and what he does—and I am, by the way, doing a very similar thing—he intensifies truth by invention. By dint of declaration he creates something which gives you a much deeper insight into the truth of, let’s say, Africa or Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, and it’s totally legitimate and the debate is very, very silly. Let the accountants be happy with their debate. I’m not going to participate.

This is pretty much the same view that emerged out of the discussions about Kapuściński during the two-day symposium held in October by the Polish Cultural Institute, the NBCC, the New York Institute for the Humanities, and the new Literary Reportage concentration at NYU’s journalism school, among others. Unfortunately, the “very, very silly” ambivalence about Kapuściński in the U.S. continues to have very, very real consequences. And the specific discussion to which Weisberg refers, Morgan Meis’s “idle chatter,” is not only idle but harmful and sad, as Meis does not limit himself to questioning the Polish journalist’s veracity, but assumes that the accusation of Kapuściński’s collaboration with the Polish secret service (an accusation that has been called into question both publicly and in print by recent biographers) can be passed on unproblematically, without any discussion of the complexity involved in every interaction between state intelligence and everyday citizens in the Soviet bloc, or anywhere for that matter. (As Anna Bikont points out, Kapuściński may have sent in reports to the secret service, but a perusal of those reports reveals that he deliberately provided them with useless information.)

Herzog’s comments make one thing clear: there is probably no better litmus test for someone’s sympathies with the “accountants” or the “declarers” (and explorers) of truth than his or her position on Kapuściński (provided, of course, that the person in question has even read him). Why it is Kapuściński who regularly generates such ambivalence in the U.S. and not, say, Bruce Chatwin, is an interesting question. Maybe it has something to do with all those consonants and funny letters.

As for an extended complex and intelligent discussion about the Polish writer’s work, here is the National Book Critics Circle’s post of video coverage of Part III of “After Kapuściński: The Art of Reportage in the 21st Century,” a panel moderated by Robert Boynton and featuring Breyten Breytenbach, Ted Conover, Klara Glowczewska, Wiktor Osiatyński, and David Samuels, which dealt with Kapuściński’s legacy today.

From left: Breytenbach, Conover, Samuels, Glowczewska, Osiatyński, Boynton


After Kapuściński: The Art of Reportage in the 21st Century, parts I & II

David Varno has just posted to Critical Mass, the National Book Critics Circle blog, a summary and downloadable podcast of the second panel of “After Kapuściński: The Art of Reportage in the 21st Century.”


This panel, titled “Literary Reportage Between Fact and Fiction, Self and Other,” was moderated by Lawrence Weschler and featured Random Family author Adrian Nicole LeBlanc; long-time New Yorker writer and Borges translator Alastair Reid; and Wojciech Jagielski, Gazeta Wyborcza journalist and author of the recent and much-acclaimed reportage about child soldiers in Uganda, Nocni wędrowcy (Night Wanderers, WAB 2009) and Towers of Stone: The Battle of Wills in Chechnya (which, translated by Soren Gauger, was just published by Seven Stories Press in the U.S.). One point made early on in the discussion is that the questionability of Kapuściński’s “fact-checking” itself needs to be called into question. At any rate, it seems to me to be a moot point, but one that is troublesome for many people and probably won’t ever be resolved.

Susan Harris’s recent podcast interview on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Here On Earth” show brings the issue up again. Harris is Editor of Words without Borders, and talks about the journal’s October issue on international reportage, specifically about the thin line between objectivity and confirmatory bias — mainly on the example of Swedish writer Peter Fröberg Idling’s remarkable book Pol Pot’s Smile — which is often considered an ineluctable feature of journalism, and not only of the literary or long-form variety.


Critical Mass also has Varno’s summary and a downloadable podcast available for the first panel of “After Kapuściński: The Art of Reportage in the 21st Century.” Titled “The Art of Reportage on the Ground and on the Page,” the discussion was moderated by NBCC President Jane Ciabattari. and focused on its participants’ practical experiences as reporters. Those participants were: Polish journalist Paweł Smoleński, author of Irak. Piekło w raju (Iraq: Hell in Paradise, 2004, for which he was awarded a 2005 Kurt Schork Award);  poet and current American Academy in Rome Fellow Eliza Griswold, whose reportage on the faultline between Islam and Christianity, The Tenth Parallel, is forthcoming with FSG; Arif Jamal, the Pakistani journalist and author of The Shadow War: The Untold War of Jihad in Kashmir (Melville House, 2009); acclaimed American journalist Elizabeth Rubin, just back from Afghanistan; and Joshua Clark, author of the Katrina memoir, Heart Like Water (Free Press, 2007).