In some respects, the most stimulating film I saw at this year's Cannes International Film Festival was one of the last pictures screened there. ``The Troubles We've Seen: A History of Journalism in Wartime'' was directed by Marcel Ophuls, perhaps the leading documentary-maker in world cinema today. He is one of the few with a reputation strong enough to bring his movies to commercial release in the United States, despite the obstacles normally encountered by nonfiction films in the theatrical marketplace.
Ophuls's name sparks instant respect in the minds of filmgoers who admire the passion, energy, and exhaustiveness of his works. A bit of trepidation may accompany that respect, however, since the usual Ophuls movie is an intellectual extravaganza that requires active thought by the audience for about three times the length of an ordinary film.
``The Troubles We've Seen'' is something of a quickie, by Ophuls standards, since it only lasts about four hours - some 30 minutes shorter than ``The Sorrow and the Pity,'' his Oscar-nominated probe of French collaboration with the Nazis during World War II, and ``The Memory of Justice,'' his lucid examination of the postwar Nuremberg trials.
The new movie is also more limited in scope than those earlier films. It doesn't take up sweeping intellectual questions embedded in a bygone historical era, but zeroes in on a subject that's as specific and immediate as it is complex and troubling: the responsibility of journalists covering the war in former Yugoslavia, where Ophuls has traveled four times since early last year.
This choice of topic makes ``The Troubles We've Seen'' somewhat more reportorial and less philosophical than the vast explorations usually associated with Ophuls's name. Indeed, numerous reporters are among the major ``characters'' who appear in it - ranging from John F. Burns of the New York Times to veteran journalist Martha Gellhorn, who amusingly recounts how she managed to cover the D-Day invasion of Europe by pretending she was tagging along looking for a ``woman's angle'' and wouldn't get in anybody's way.
True to his usual habits, though, Ophuls can't help using the day-to-day discoveries of his investigative work - filming, photographing, videotaping, conducting interviews, hurling hard questions at everyone in sight - as an entryway to issues as large as the practices of journalism and filmmaking themselves. This includes the multifaceted issue of how sets of values that are fundamentally at odds with each other, such as objectivity versus subjectivity and neutrality versus commitment, affect working reporters. These reporters like to see themselves as witnesses to truth but often function as conduits for ideas, opinions, policies, and ideologies that are at once hugely powerful and dimly understood.
As absorbing and thought-provoking as ``The Troubles We've Seen'' generally is, it's also somewhat ragged in contrast with previous Ophuls works. The filmmaker doesn't appear to have worked out a clear and consistent line of argument with respect to the Bosnian war. As a result, he tends to cast about in search of revealing images and provocative comments, and to stitch these together in a manner that's more intuitive and associative than logical and compelling. Watching the movie is more like browsing through Ophuls's thought processes than sharing any final conclusions he may have drawn.
While one misses the gripping tensile strength of Ophuls's earlier films, however, one is all the more amazed by the extraordinary openness of ``The Troubles We've Seen'' on a human and even personal level.
Ophuls has woven unabashedly ``nonobjective'' material into his documentaries before, as when he injected old-movie references into ``The Memory of Justice,'' and allowed his own temperamental outbursts into ``Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie,'' his Academy Award-winning study of a Nazi war criminal. He goes still further in ``The Troubles We've Seen,'' using a variety of devices to shake up conventional documentary habits. Sometimes he caricatures his own role as a dedicated truth-seeker in a comfortable hotel far from the battle zone. Occasionally he uses incongruous music to comment ironically on disturbing events.
And frequently he splices entertainment-film footage into his chronicle, boldly mixing high-culture sobriety with pop-culture panache. At some points, for instance, he juxtaposes scenes from the Bing Crosby musical ``Holiday Inn'' with shots from a real Holiday Inn housing Western reporters in Sarajevo; at other moments he interweaves his Bosnian material with excerpts from a World War I historical epic directed long ago by his father, Max Ophuls, a great maker of dramatic films.
Ophuls's decision to make ``The Troubles We've Seen'' such an obviously personal work may be linked to his increasing impatience with the difficulties of creating ambitious documentaries in the money-driven world of contemporary European cinema.
In a statement read to the audience by a friend before the film's Cannes screening, he spoke of becoming an exile in his own country, and announced his decision to leave France permanently for someplace where his efforts might be better appreciated.
Ophuls also connected the skepticism toward mass media in ``The Troubles We've Seen'' to his longtime rage over the censoring of ``The Sorrow and the Pity'' when it was shown on French television years ago.
In sum, the title of ``The Troubles We've Seen'' refers not only to the horrors encountered by reporters in Sarajevo, but also to the injustices Ophuls feels he has endured during his career as an investigative filmmaker. It's important to understand this if one is to comprehend the movie in depth. Still, one should consider this factor in the context of Ophuls's career as a whole.
My own direct encounters with him over the past two decades have always been both interesting and pleasant. At the same time, however, he is widely known to be an irascible and eccentric artist with a very quick temper, and it is entirely possible that his angry departure from France and his exasperation with French film production will pass and be forgotten before too long.
In any case, one hopes he will continue his ongoing experimentation with documentary form in some sympathetic setting, wherever this may turn out to be, and that he will keep on stimulating and surprising us as vigorously as he has done again this year.