Jesse Rosenfeld’s Middle East

Jesse Rosenfeld (R) interviewing a Kurdish refugee in Turkey.

Two-thirds of the way through Freelancer on the Front Lines, Jesse Rosenfeld is filmed packing his flack jacket, as he prepares to return home to Beirut.

“Hopefully I won’t have to bust it out in Lebanon,” he says rather wanly, followed by a moment of silence. 

It’s a discomfiting emotional moment, which neatly captures the precarity of the Canadian journalist’s existence, independently reporting from one part of the Mideast to the next.

Rosenfeld’s then-home, though without any wars the last twelve years, is not exactly known for its stability. Heavily impacted by the conflict in neighbouring Syria, with its own sectarian tensions, Lebanon could very well descend into the same kind of chaos.

If the documentary misses one country in the region, that would be the ticket. But, Freelancer is about the last decade’s conflicts, in which Lebanon has only played a supporting role. Reporting from Iraq, Egypt, Turkey and Israel/Palestine, Rosenfeld’s territory is grand enough.

A remarkably unpretentious, DiY reporter, who regularly files with New York’s Daily Beast, along with Glen Greenwald’s The Intercept and Al Jazeera English, Rosenfeld is the king of snark. Rarely does he miss a moment to ironise the inhumanity that he encounters.

It is an especially refreshing attitude given the region’s predilection for religious fundamentalism and knee-jerk self-righteousness. But it is key to understanding the 34-year-old journalist’s popularity with his publishers. It’s the kind of politics that have fuelled the best war reporting. Michael Herr’s celebrated 1977 Vietnam memoir, Dispatches, comes to mind.

Freelancer on the Front Lines (Capsule 1 – Jesse Rosenfeld) from NFB/marketing on Vimeo.

Rosenfeld’s leftism is consistently matter-of-fact. If you disagree with his take, you clearly don’t get the Middle East. It’s the Levant à la tartar. There’s no military censor or ideological framework to deconstruct or work through.

Reality is as Rosenfeld recounts it, weighted down by hog-tied ISIS corpses stinking up the backs of Peshmerga pickups.

Much of the strength of the Canadian journalist’s reporting stems from its regional cosmopolitanism. Freelancer’s travelogue-like narrative helps put that into focus. Rosenfeld is authoritative because he’s in command of the big picture geographically.

In Middle Eastern reporting, that’s an especially tough problem given the controls that journalists have been subject to since the end of the Cold War, as local governments have increasingly sought to limit the influence of local news publishers such as Haaretz and Al Jazeera.

Yes, there is a fearlessness to Rosenfeld’s approach, particularly well-captured in the part of the documentary shot during the Egyptian revolution, where he moves in between slow-moving Cairo traffic, interviewing drivers. Someone could shoot or run him over at any moment.

But, more importantly, there is a sense that Rosenfeld’s point of view is lacking in borders – political, cultural – which puts the reporter in a position of understanding what’s going on without the typical constraints blinding Mideast reporters to the obvious.

This is the essence of what Freelancer on the Front Lines captures. It’s about being a journalist in a profession that more often than not is circumscribed by national narratives which can never see beyond the separation walls that divide the region’s peoples and countries from one another.

Freelancer on the Front Lines (Capsule 3 – The Car Breakdown) from NFB/marketing on Vimeo.

Screenshot courtesy of Freelancer on the Front Lines. All rights reserved.