Film Review: The Documentary “The Will to See” — Muckraking, Fierce and Absorbing

By Gerald Peary

Again and again, we are taken in The Will to See to places where regular reporters never venture, and certainly not filmgoers.

The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope, directed by Bernard-Henri Lévy and Marc Roussel. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema.

A scene from The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope. Photo: Marc Roussel.

The most absorbing and important movie playing in Boston, at the Kendall Square Cinema, is one nobody seems to know about. Sadly, I was the one person in the audience for Bernard-Henri Levy’s terrific muckraking documentary, The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope, in which the famous French philosopher travels the globe landing in horrific spots ravaged by devastating wars. These go mostly unnoticed in the West. We see him in, among other places, Nigeria and Somalia, Libya and Bangladesh, and at slave-like refugee camp off the West African coast. He visits the Kurds both in Syria and in Kurdistan, and, as the movie was shot several years ago, in Afghanistan just before the Taliban took over again, and in Ukraine already rubble after the first Russian invasion, before everyone en masse came to its rescue.

For these trips, Levy was financed by Paris Match to provide stories and photos. But unlike self-identified “objective” reporters, Levy takes sides in wars, and in a completely open, public way. He makes close friends with the politicians he approves of, and he stands strong for what he determines are the right causes. His mentors: Camus and Sartre, though Levy himself has been fighting the needed fight for more than forty years. He was there at the moment of Bangladesh’s independence and when Libya overthrew Gaddafi. He was in Afghanistan starting a newspaper when the Russians were invading. He has for many years been a booster of the Kurds, in their courageous battles against the Turks, the Syrian government, and Isis. His sworn enemies: Putin, Erdogan, Islam fundamentalists. In this film, at least, Levy stays away from attacking America, even where a critique is so obvious, as in Donald Trump’s unconscionable betrayal of the Kurds. He also, noticeably, lands in Israel and leaves quickly, leaving us wondering how, as a Jew, he stands on Palestinian rights.

Parts of The Will to See play like a tense, true-life thriller. The film crew is threatened by a mercenary with a machete when Levy exposes in Nigeria the killings of Christians by Boko Haram. He is assured that he will be protected in today’s Libya, but the automobile carrying him is shot at by a passing car, and there’s a chase through the streets as exciting as Hitchcock. The reason he is almost killed: to purge Libya of “Levy the Jew.”

Again and again, we are taken in The Will to See to places where regular reporters never venture, and certainly not filmgoers. There is an extraordinary sequence where Levy’s military friends in Kurdistan give him access to their secret prison of captured Isis. The French philosopher is allowed to give a talk to the male children of the prisoners, and he lectures them how they need to be teachers to their parents. He explains to these young Muslins that he is a Jew who believes in one people, including Muslims and Christians. Also, a visit into the bowels of the jail to interrogate a Frenchman who earlier had joined Isis. Scary. This ghoulish madman is like someone scurrying in the dirt about Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Editor’s Note: There is also a print version of The Will To See available from Yale University Press. Salman Rushdie calls it “a passionate, engaged book that combines philosophy, war reportage, and autobiography to explore the creation of a brilliant and brave mind.”

Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, ex-curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His latest feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, has played at film festivals around the world.

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