Bill Gentile, producer and director of the documentary “Dateline Afghanistan: Reporting the Forgotten War”, which follows several Western journalists on the job in Afghanistan, has been a foreign correspondent for the past thirty years. He began in 1977 working for United Press International in Mexico City, followed by stints in Nicaragua covering the Sandinista revolution, as well as the Contra war and the Salvadoran civil war. He currently is an artist in residence at American University in Washington, D.C., where he created the Foreign Correspondence Network, and teaches students the realities of being a foreign correspondent.
PM: What was the inspiration for making a documentary about Western journalists in Afghanistan?
BG: I wanted it to be the first in a series of documentaries about how foreign correspondents do their work. The whole idea behind “Dateline Afghanistan” is to show the reality of a certain country or a certain region of the world through the eyes of the people who cover that country or region. I think transmitting information about those places is a lot easier and perhaps even more effective if I do it through the eyes and the ears of the correspondents who work there. They’re generally youngish people, they’re smart, they’re dynamic, they’re doing interesting things—so if I tell their story, in Afghanistan, or wherever, at the same time I’m telling the story of the people of the country where they work.
PM: You’ve been in the game for so long, what are some of the big changes that you’ve seen in how foreign coverage is presented in the United States?
BG: Reporters are still out there working in the field, but there are vast differences in how the reporters do their jobs technically. Essentially the job is the same: you’re out there to get information. In Afghanistan, that job is much more difficult in many ways, and that’s due to a number of factors. Language has an awful lot to do with that and the cultural barriers are much more significant and harder to break through than they were in Central America.
PM: How are the Western correspondents you spoke to in Afghanistan handling those cultural gaps?
BG: I had the great privilege of being able to work with some great correspondents. Carlotta Gall of The New York Times, N.C. Aizenman of The Washington Post, Andrew North of the BBC—just terrific journalists who have worked very hard and have been quite successful in reporting the essence of what’s happening in Afghanistan. As far as I know, Andrew was the only one making a serious effort to really learn the language. The others used interpreters and assistants who were very good, but if you don’t understand the language, it’s really tough to get under the skin of a place.
PM: I was surprised at one scene in the documentary where a female BBC producer offended some Afghan brick makers by showing up with her jeans rolled up and without a headscarf. This long into the war, and some reporters don’t understand the cultural mores of the place?
BG: Carlotta Gall never wore a headscarf, and I was a bit surprised by that. Having said that, women journalists working in Afghanistan generally have an easier time than men. The men can go talk to government officials, they can talk to farmers, they can go to a house and the men of the family will invite them into the living room so they can talk about what’s happening in the country. The women can do that, but can also get into the kitchen and speak with the women in a way that the men never could. My first reaction working with Carlotta and N.C. Aizenman was that it must be really tough for them working in the country, but they said that they can get into places that the men simply cannot.
PM: How many Western journalists were over there?